Left Realism Matters More than Ever in Criminology

Houston, we have a bit of a problem. Having just finished writing my term papers at the GTU, I’ve turned to grading exams (will be done soon! I promise!) and to some writing obligations in my areas of expertise, only to find out that I seem to have outgrown things I promised to finish and send out. It’s not exactly writer’s block: the challenge is not dishing out words, but rather the specific words that I’m supposed to be dishing. I committed to write something about the anticarceral literature of the last few years, its contributions and the ways in which it falls into the same traps it identifies (basically, a scholarly version of this thing), except I can’t shake a sense of “what’s the use?” It’s simply no longer clear to me how “contributing to the debate” makes the world a better place.

I’ve now spent more than 25 years in criminology and penology and have come to realize that there is nothing new under the sun. Maybe this is true of all social sciences, maybe humanities, too, maybe all disciplines; I can only speak about my own area of expertise. New terms and jargons are banded about often enough, but very little of the substance changes. Do the conference and publication thing, year in and year out, and you’ll risk catching whatever new viral tic is going around, infecting the crop-de-jour of publications and talks: the X industrial complex, postcolonialism, decolonialism, neoliberalism, extractionism, or whatever is in vogue this year (I’m sure there’s something, but I’ve been out of the loop for a few months, mourning my father and shellshocked from the massacre and the war and bereft of appetite for mundane job stuff.) If you scrape the jargon off, you find that the basics have changed very little in more than a century, and when articulated simply and without flourishes, they pretty much reflect what we know: what counts as “crime” varies, and although some things (e.g., serious violence) tend to generate consensus, others (e.g., white collar crime and environmental crime) are treated more nebulously; what is treated more seriously sometimes, but not always, correlates with what causes the most social harm. Disadvantage and deprivation can bring about pathological behavior both on the part of the people experiencing it and on the part of the people policing it. Militarized and aggressive policing is a low-yield, high-alienation strategy that makes communities bitter and mistrustful and harms efforts to actually solve crime. Locking people up can create conditions for cruelty and neglect and can bring about change (due to deterrence or rehabilitation) only under very specific conditions that, more often than not, do not materialize. Generally, the folks on the receiving end of the uglier aspects of criminal justice–whether too much or too little–tend to have less money and darker skins.

Contributions of value to this situation come, basically, in two packages: either a truly groundbreaking understanding of how the world works, or someone willing to put in the work to make things better. Publications and talks of the former variety are rare, which makes sense–we stand on the shoulders of giants, even if we no longer recognize the giants or remember to cite them. As to the latter variety, practical effort to improve things is hard to do, and also thankless, because even fairly mediocre folks know how to write the sort of gloomy diatribe that gets an applause: People did A, which was bad. Or people did B and meant to do a good thing, but it turned out bad because of systemic problems. Or people did C and pretended to do a good thing, when they were doing a bad thing all along. It matters very little which tack you take, as long as your conclusion is that things turned out worse than they were before. Writing this sort of thing gets a lot more respect in the social science spaces where I spent two and a half decades of my life than actually working in policy or government, where you are branded either as an idiot or as complicit with the bad guys, and it’s not nearly as much work, so even grad students realize fairly quickly where the incentives lie.

Because saying what other people have said for decades is not innovation, and because true innovation is not on the menu, we have simply found new ways to say old things. Which is why I find myself asked, at a book talk, how FESTER relates to “doing crip theory,” because apparently saying, “people with disabilities and chronic conditions were horrifically neglected and their conditions deteriorated” is less hip than calling it “crip theory,” which is exactly the same thing, except without the fancy name. Same goes for saying “the neglect and mismanagement of COVID-19 in prison caused horrific outbreaks and alarming rates of mortality, which affected people on the outside as well” without dressing it up as “eugenic logics.” When I say that overtheorizing is not a virtue, it’s an ego-driven intellectual game (and not a particularly impressive one), and that the facts are horrifying enough without calling them all sorts of things that don’t actually do any explanatory work, I get blank stares.

Thank you for listening to my grumpy TED talk so far. I know I can play this game just like everyone else–I just don’t want to anymore. But this is not about me–I’m trying to make a more general point, which is this: The big debates in the field today–the reform-vs.-non-reformist-reform stuff and the abolitionism-vs.-non-abolitionism stuff–are little more than iterations of a debate we already had in the 1970s and 1980s, namely, the debate between left idealism and left realism.

Ask any American criminologist or penologist about radical realism, and nine times out of ten you’ll get a blank stare. Punishment theory tends to be fairly parochial, and had I not been lucky to study with people trained in Europe and Canada, odds are I wouldn’t be familiar with Jock Young’s important work. A towering figure in criminology in the 1970s, Young was part of the pioneers of The New Criminology, then a groundbreaking work that responded to the challenges of British working class neighborhoods with a systemic analysis of deprivation and inequality, and challenged the mainstream assumptions of classicists and positivists by asking questions about the provenance of criminal categories and criminalization and positing that power played a role in crafting them.

It’s not a huge stretch to see that Young was not a starched, stuffy conservative. He was well aware of what we all know to be true, which is that the folks at the bottom of the social ladder are on the receiving end of the worst that we have to offer, both in terms of coercive state power and in terms of governmental neglect. But he was not willing to sign on to the fanciful idea, then banded around by Scandinavian abolitionists, that crime had no ontological existence and was essentially an invention by the bad guys at the top to perpetuate their superiority and make everyone else miserable. Crime, Young said, was a real thing, it victimized real people and caused real suffering, and it required a real response, rooted in the world that these people inhabited: those who committed the crimes and those who suffered from them.

Along with John Lea, Young offered a multifaceted understanding of the causes of crime, tying it to three factors: relative deprivation, subcultures, and marginalization. Poverty alone could not explain rising crime rates; standards of living had risen since the 1950s, and so had crime rates. But in an increasingly wealthy society, everyone’s material expectations rise: we are wealthier, but we feel poorer, and thus there is more pressure to get more stuff to keep up with everyone else, which generates historically high crime rates.

Relatedly, Lea and Young built on some of the proto-conflict criminologists of the 1950s (Merton, Albert Cohen, and others) to combine the problem of relative deprivation with systemic neglect (which they refer to as “marginalization) and the rise of criminal subcultures. Recall that Merton flagged the basic problem with the American dream: the mismatch between the goal (to get ahead materially) and the means (blocked opportunities due to structural inequalities, lack of representation, and being pushed out of fully participating in society.) People who adhere to the conventional goals but lack legitimate opportunities to accomplish them, said Albert Cohen, experience “status frustration,” which can lead to cynicism and bitterness and fuel criminal subcultures.

What produces crime, therefore, is a combination of factors, which Young captures in the “square of crime.” This framework can accommodate multiple criminological questions: why people commit crime, what makes crime victims vulnerable, what factors affect public attitudes toward crime, and what impacts the state’s formal response to crime. Any criminological theory that is a one-trick pony can ridicule any corner of the square of crime: knee-jerk left idealists can complain about the offender corner, arguing that crime is a capitalist, white supremacist invention, while knee-jerk conservatives (and, say, some carceral feminists) can complain about blaming the victim. But grownups understand that complex phenomena have complex etiologies.

Complex problems call for complex solutions, and left realism focuses on two types of practical, high-yield strategies: prevention through early intervention (tearly-age education and high quality programming for youth) and community-based approaches that focused on raising living standards, creating jobs, and improving quality of life. Because crime prevention is at its best when initiated by the community, the police must invest in building the community’s trust, opting for proactive problem-solving, rather than low-yield, high-antagonism tactics like militarized raids and stop-and-frisk activities.

You can probably see where i’m going with this. Left realism is an approach that sees social inequalities as fueling two sides of the same coin: criminality and criminalization. They are cognizant of the fact that the world can be very unfair toward those of us with less resources, and they also know that both perpetrators and victims tend to belong to the less fortunate sectors of society. There’s no preemptive assumption that victims and offenders must develop class solidarity and hold hands in peace circles, because crime is a serious thing and not everyone feels forgiving. There’s also no preemptive assumption that people who commit crime are uniformly innocuous and, without exception, lovely to be around, even as the source of their suffering can be very complicated. And, there is a basic trust in the common sense and power of community, because even though many people are poor and disadvantaged, most poor and disadvantaged people do not commit crime, nor do they like being around criminal activity. All of this makes as much sense to me in 2024 as it did to Young between the 1970s and the 1990s.

Why am I thinking about this now? In trying to discern my current opinions about carceral-this and anticarceral-that, I came across a crisp, clear analysis of our current political moment by the one and only Nate Silver. You can (and should) read the whole thing here, but here are a few handy paragraphs:

SJLs and liberals have some interests in common. Both are “culturally liberal” on questions like abortion and gay marriage. And both disdain Donald Trump and the modern, MAGA-fied version of the Republican Party. But I’d suggest we’ve reached a point where they disagree in at least as many ways as they agree. Here are a few dimensions of conflict:

  1. SJL’s focus on group identity contrasts sharply with liberalism’s individualism.
  2. SJL, like other critical theories that emerged from the Marxist tradition, tends to be totalizing. The whole idea of systemic racism, for instance, is that the entire system is rigged to oppress nonwhite people. Liberalism is less totalizing. This is in part because it is the entrenched status quo and so often is well-served by incremental changes. But it’s also because liberalism’s focus on democracy makes it intrinsically pluralistic.
  3. SJL, with its academic roots, often makes appeals to authority and expertise as opposed to entrusting individuals to make their own decisions and take their own risks. This is a complicated axis of conflict because there are certainly technocratic strains of liberalism, whereas like Hayek I tend to see experts and central planners as error-prone and instead prefer more decentralized mechanisms (e.g. markets, votes, revealed preferences) for making decisions.
  4. Finally, SJL has a radically more constrained view on free speech than liberalism, for which free speech is a sacred principle. The SJL intolerance for speech that could be harmful, hateful or which could spread “misinformation” has gained traction, however. It is the predominant view among college students and it is becoming more popular in certain corners of the media and even among many mainstream Democrats.

Silver goes on to explain why these differences have become even more stark in the aftermath of October 7:

I suspect that an increasing number of liberals will a) more clearly recognize that they belong to a different political tribe than the SJLs and even b) will see SJLs as being just as bad as conservatives. And this will cut both ways; some SJLs will regard liberals as just as bad as conservatives — enough so that they might even be willing to deny a vote to Biden. All of this is quite bad for the progressive coalition between liberals and the left that’s won the popular vote for president four times in a row.

The liberal-vs-SJL distinction Silver makes is echoed, in the criminological area, in the perennial distinction between left realists and left idealists, which then became the distinction between reformers and revolutionaries, which then became the distinction between, say, not-quite-abolitionist and abolitionist folks. Left realists are not the perfect equivalent of traditional liberals, but in terms of how the field is organized, they might as well be, because for the hardcore abolition/anticarceralism folks, anyone who is willing to treat crime as a phenomenon with ontological reality, regard incarceration as an institution that has some public safety payoff (if only to incapacitate people who are truly dangerous to their immediate environment), and ask hard questions about racial disparities in violent crime rates (and not only in criminalization), might as well be a rabid Trumper. I see this again and again at conferences. I hear incessant chatter about how prison “should not exist in its current form” but no practical proposals for what form it should take. I hear conversations about disenfranchised people being harmed by crime, but nothing about the fact that there are actual people, also disenfranchised who are doing the harming, and about the possibility that restorative justice circles might not be the only solution for this situation. Thing is, as a staunch left realist, I have serious axes to grind with fatuous analyses and suggestions from both these-people-are-monsters fearmongerers and psychopaths and crime-is-nothing-but-white-supremacist-scapegoating idiots and fantasists. And I also know that there’s a silent majority of reasonable people hovering around those two points that doesn’t quite accept those positions in their caricatured forms, but are afraid to write nuanced things that can contribute to practical improvements in the real world out of fear that no one in their respective milieus will treat them seriously or want to have coffee with them. And I don’t really have a solid plan for how to make this slouch toward unseriousness and hyperbole any better, beyond saying again and again: Jock Young was right, there are no easy answers, and left realism matters now more than ever in criminology.

Self-Compassion for Disillusioned Activists

In the sixties, Todd Gitlin, then a young, passionate student, became involved in the fight against the Vietnam war and in the struggle for equality. Alongside his friends at Students for a Democratic society (he was the president in 1963-1964) he agitated, organized, protested, held movements, registered people to vote in the Deep South, and fought against orthodoxy in the Democratic party and for a New Left. Many years later, already a sociology professor and incisive critic of the movement he helped create, he evocatively wrote about how much activism had meant to him. The first half of his masterpiece The Sixties reads like a manifesto of hope; the second half, though, is rife with confusion. Plans for political action got muddled with self expression and individuality a-la diggers and the Mime Troupe (to read a different perspective on those, read Peter Coyote’s fantastic memoir Sleeping Where I Fall); people he admired and respected as leaders disappointed at best and disintegrated at worst; former comrades slid further and further to the left, established the Weather Report, and engaged in clumsy but frightening violent actions Gitlin could not condone or comprehend (learn more about those in the podcast Mother Country Radicals). Gitlin’s later books reveal an author and thinker who still very much believes in the ideals of socialism and peace, but resents the splintering and performativity of identity politics that he believes shattered the movement in the 1970s.

Today I found myself going back to one of my favorite books by Gitlin, Letters to a Young Activist, which evokes that deep ambivalence and wisdom that comes only from spending years in a movement you both admire and fiercely critique. Gitlin talks about the importance of passionate motivation but also reminds young activists not to “think with their blood”; highlights the crucial role of shining a light on the wrongs of your own side, but also the importance of letting self-flagellation by the wayside; and warns against the dangers of “marching on the English department”, as it were, while one’s opponents “march on Washington.”

What brought me back to Gitlin were a number of recent conversations with younger folks I like and admire a lot about their disillusionment with infighting and lack of integrity in radical movements and organizations with noble goals and true dedication. People admired and respected in positions of leadership turn out to behave in disappointing ways; serious issues get buried or, on the opposite end of the spectrum, debated to death, complete with public denunciations and humiliations; minute complaints turn into struggle sessions that sap everyone’s will to come back; and eventually people come to demonize their comrades and brothers in arms more than they do the bad guys they are fighting against.

Hearing about this stuff is always heartbreaking, especially when I see folks who I know put in countless, tireless, thankless energy, time and effort into organizing and activism express disillusionment and despair. I can offer very little solace in this sort of situation; dealing with big disappointment as an idealist is really hard, and calls for more than one self-compassion break.

Kristin Neff, who has written and spoken extensively about self compassion and mindfulness, offers a three-step formula for anyone who is struggling. The first step is to admit that this is, indeed, a moment of suffering, a low point in the person’s life. The second, which I’ll elaborate more on in a bit, is understanding that suffering is universal, a part of life, and that everyone suffers–sometimes intensely–from time to time. And the third is offering oneself some kindness, either through expressing it or through a gentle hand touching one’s own heart.

I like this exercise a lot, and find the second step especially important, because as Brené Brown explains, one of the traps of shame and self-pity (by contrast to self compassion) is to see one’s experience as unique and idiosyncratic. I see a lot of this horror in young, committed activists, who are so distraught by occurrences in their group or community that they believe it must be prey to some special variety of pathology. This is where I can offer some comfort. As regular readers know, I’ve written and spoken quite a bit about the sixties, and part of my work on Yesterday’s Monsters included learning about cults and movements that swirled around the California counterculture when Manson put together his “family.” When the murders occurred, and when Manson and his followers were identified as the culprits, they evoked a wave of horror because cults and their inner workings were not well known or understood at the time. Indeed, the idea of thought control and brainwashing was associated at the time only with Communist regimes such as China and Korea (see an example of this in The Manchurian Candidate.)

But while this group stood out in the heinousness of their crimes, they were by no means the only group led by charismatic leaders and/or a vision to be plagued by exploitation, violence, and oppression. In the mid-seventies, the California legislature held a hearing for family members of young adults who had joined cults, hearing testimony after testimony about how their loved ones fell in thrall to some charismatic leader or other, started believing some stranger things, dramatically changed their appearance or habits, isolated from them to the point of estrangement, and gave all their effort and resources to the cult. Witnesses testified about the Moonies and about a variety of Christian apocalyptic cults. The legislators at the hearing tiptoed between expressing deep concern and sympathy and reminding everyone that cult members were adults with the freedom of religion and expression.

To this day, whenever I see people criticize radical activist movements that fall prey to unsavory activity and conflict, the demonizing language compares the movement to a cult. This is not a scientific or easy process, because cults turn out to be quite a malleable category. But one need not go into the reeds to identify pathological cultish elements in pretty much every activist movement, including influential and notable ones. Three years ago I wrote a post about this stuff that identified a lot of the obvious issues: betrayals of the cause, identitarian splintering, sexual exploitation or perceived exploitation, financial malfeasance, etc. Having read a lot about movements in the 1960s and 1970s, I see situations where the FBI were infiltrating and persecuting organizations and cells and eventually didn’t have to do anything to hasten their demise: these outfits crumbled on their own, without the malignant interference of the feds, because they suffered from these inherent issues. Stanley Nelson’s fantastic documentary about the Black Panthers is a case in point: there’s nothing the FBI could have done to dissolve the Panthers that Huey Newton didn’t do himself. Larry Kramer’s acerbic account of ACT UP in The Normal Heart shows the awful indifference and demonization the activists were working against, but also how they sabotaged themselves through horrendous infighting. I see this stuff again and again.

Here are some factors–and this is by no means an exhaustive list–that are part of this malignant cocktail. Oftentimes, radical organizing draws people who seek the type of camaraderie and belonging that membership in a close-knit group of likeminded people working for an important cause can provide. Some young folks get swept in this energy because home life is rife with trauma or neglect, or because their school or employment networks haven’t improved their lot socially. I’m not saying their commitment to the goal is not genuine; all I’m saying is that excitement about a common vision is infectious and promises an embrace that is very difficult to resist if one feels lonely or traumatized. The fact that a lot of radical movements strive toward ideological purity is also part of this. It isolated people and drives them further into the insular experience of the group, with no reality checks and balances on the outside. I’ve spoken to mixed-race couples that broke up on account of a commitment to racial justice that was so strong that it eclipsed years of love and commitment. I know of people who took the Liberation Pledge (not to eat where animals are served) and ended up unable to eat with anyone from their family or friend group outside vegan movements. Not only does this mean all of one’s social efforts are invested in a relatively small group of people, but that group ends up being an echo chamber and it’s very difficult to test ideas in the real world. And moreover, anytime purity and adherence to principles are the yardstick for worthiness, people turn on each other and compete over who is a more zealous advocate for social change. This process of eating each other seems to accelerate as shit starts hitting the fan, because people who are afraid and fighting for their own survival are sure to lash out at the people standing closest to them.

The fact that crappy things are happening to committed activists throughout the social justice field is not cause for cheer, but I think that anyone who thinks their organization is uniquely pathological might derive some comfort from knowing that, apparently, homo sapiens seems to find a way to ruin communities centered on ideals and struggles pretty much all the time. I don’t think we’ve found a way to organize and seek social change that doesn’t end up marred in these kinds of self destructive crap. I wish we could, but I’m in my late forties, have organized and agitated plenty, and I’m just not seeing it. The one that came closest to being a healthy organizing container, for me, was the #StopSanQuentinOutbreak coalition; it wasn’t without its warts, but it was highly effective and overall a really positive, supportive environment. I suspect the magic had something to do with the fact that, in addition to the long-term decarceration vision, we had tangible, short-term emergency goals, and thus no time for faffing. Perhaps human nature, like nature in general, abhors a vacuum, and will fill any available space with infighting and oneupmanship.

I don’t know what the answer is. But I do think that understanding we’re talking about universal phenomena that radical movements go through can be helpful to people who think they’re stuck in a uniquely dysfunctional scenario. Every unhappy family, as Tolstoy famously wrote, is unhappy in its own unique way, but they are still all unhappy. And that means that any person who believes in an ideal, a vision, a blueprint for far-reaching social change, and is committed enough to put a lot of work into it, will experience heartbreak from time to time. If this is you now, then it’s simply your turn. Offer yourself all the kindness you need to get through the rough patch, and then see if there’s another path for you to change the world or bring about your values in a way that supports your heart better.

“Apolitical” Judicial Selection in Israel? Lots of Moving Parts

A few days ago I drew your attention to the upcoming election to the Israel Bar and, particularly, to the thoroughly corrupt candidate who had sex with women in exchange for guaranteeing their appointment to the judiciary. The crippling shame of having someone like that at the top of the administration’s licensing profession in itself should be enough for lawyers of all political stripes to vote him out. But yesterday I had an opportunity to think about the wider political ramifications of this election, when former politician Ophir Pines-Paz spoke at the democracy protest in Kiriat Tivon.

My parents were both deeply involved in the struggle for democracy and against corruption in Israel, opposing the occupation, religious coercion, social and financial inequalities, and the crimes and excesses of Netanyahu, his family members, and his government. During Netanyahu’s previous government, they protested weekly in front of his house. When this horrendous government took office, my parents faithfully reported to the protests each week. Sometimes, my dad would protest mid-week at an intersection, waving his big flag in hand. Today I felt called to take his place, as his kind, hugging, righteous arm let go of his flag for the last time last week. I took my dad’s flag and went to the protest, alongside a dear friend and thousands of attendees (the above picture does not do justice to the amazing sights and sounds.)

Anyway, as Pines spoke to the protesters and explained the importance of the bar election, I realized that the Israeli system might be opaque to English-reading audiences, and the scandalous possibilities of this election are too complicated, perhaps, for the American press to pick up. So here’s your primer:

Israel does not hold judicial elections, as in U.S. states, nor does it hold purely political hearings by the legislature for its Supreme Court Justices as in the U.S. federal system. All judges in Israel are appointed by the President of Israel following the recommendation of a special committee, whose current structure, by law, is this:

The committee is designed to have an ostensibly professional majority: five lawyer/judge members and four politicians. Also, by custom, one of the elected Knesset Members is from the coalition and one from the opposition.

The proposed governmental “reform” would change the committee’s composition to look as follows:

Under this proposal, the committee would have eleven members, and judicial elections can be decided by a seven-member majority. In other words, if seven coalition members vote for a judge for political reasons, the sole opposition member and three judges cannot block them.

Thanks to dogged, relentless protests nationwide, the proposal has not passed yet. But the struggle to politicize the judiciary to guarantee that it favors the government continues on a variety of fronts. Two days ago, the government attempted to elect two coalition members (as opposed to one coalition member and one opposition member) to the committee. The vote was secret, and despite their efforts to drag things on and on and recount the votes for hours on end (how long does it take to electronically count 120 votes?) the Knesset elected only one member – KM Karin Elharar from the opposition. This means that at least four members of the coalition are secretly disgusted with Netanyahu and his governmental partners, though not brave enough to come out in opposition to their noxious plans.

What these noxious plans amount to is sitting government loyalists, ready to disenfranchise minorities, intensify the horrors of the occupation, and give free rein to the religious authority, in the Supreme Court, and more specifically, to block the appointment of a quiet, professional, independent judge by the name of Itzhak Amit to the Supreme Court. The coalition demonizes Amit and paints him as a post-Zionist demon. But in fact, he is widely respected as an excellent, hardworking, unassuming judge, and his sole sin apparently is that he decides cases based on the legal arguments, rather than by politics.

Can they do it? Let’s do the math:

With Elharar on the committee, and the three Supreme Court Justices presumably in favor of a strong, independent constitutional court, we have four votes for Amit and other independent judges. On the other side we have the two government ministers and the yet-to-be-elected coalition Knesset Member. The two votes up for grabs are those of the lawyers. Do you now understand why the government is so keen to seat Effie Naveh as the Israel Bar Chairperson? According to a recent exposé, Naveh’s campaign donors did so with the understanding that he will, in exchange, finagle a seat at the judicial election committee for them.

Now, Naveh has been consistently denying that he is beholden to the architects of the judicial reform. These vehement protestations are not particularly credible, given the efforts that the government is making to get him elected. But the bottom line is that Naveh’s personal or political opinions do not matter at all. He has been publicly exposed, and criminally convicted, as an unprincipled man, whose massive bribery and fraud operations are conducted to enrich him and his friends and to sexually gratify him. Is this the sort of person this government can do business with, as far as judicial appointments are concerned? You bet.

One of the challenges of the anti-government protests is that the insidious attack against the country’s democratic regime takes place on multiple fronts, including those hidden from sight. I hope this post shows how tinkering with each moving part of the judicial selection process can have vast consequences for democracy, and encourages those of you with an active Israel Bar membership to vote on Tuesday–and those of you with lawyer friends to encourage your buddies to vote Naveh out of office.

Rise of the Innocence Podcast

A short while ago, I chaired a panel to celebrate Paul Kaplan and Daniel LaChance’s new book Crimesploitation, which examines the lowbrow and middlebrow shows that shed glamorous and lurid light on crime: Cops, To Catch a Predator, etc. As I wrote in my review of the book, this read coincided with the week in which Adnan Syed, whose case was the subject of the first season of the podcast Serial, was set free by a Baltimore court after serving 23 years of incarceration. Here is a timeline of Syed’s case, which clearly indicates that the push to exonerate him came from the investigation in the podcast. Following in Serial’s footsteps was Undisclosed, a more pro-defense oriented podcast, which highlighted more discoveries.

In the book, Kaplan and LaChance examine a TV show that came out more or less when Serial emerged on the scene: Making a Murderer, which followed the murder case against Steven Avery and Brendan Dassey. It’s hard to argue against anything that creates a push for justice, and the authors don’t do that, but they do voice a critique against these wrongful conviction media products: by singling out specific cases of injustice, Kaplan and LaChance argue, they “fail[] to achieve the goal of critiquing the substance and structure of the criminal justice system and the bigger picture of hegemonic power relations in the United States that supports it” (94). In other words, “the protection of factually innocent people from the devastation of incarceration. . . becomes the most pressing criminal justice policy imperative, leaving untouched the question of why such a devastating punishment is so easily and readily meted out.” 

Kaplan and LaChance’s critique is well taken. The concern is that the focus on innocence will gloss over the fact that guilty people, as well as the innocent ones, don’t deserve neglect, sadism, cruelty, incompetence, and other cruel and, sadly, not unusual aspects of incarceration. I saw some of this play out in the conversation about vaccines, when jail vaccine advocates referred to the presumption of innocence to make a bid for vaccines that everyone, guilty and innocent alike, should have received immediately simply by virtue of being human and in a congregate setting with little control over their surroundings (and said so here.) But wrongful convictions are their own genre of awfulness, and while we need to support everyone who is incarcerated, I don’t think that infighting between innocence projects and prison advocacy projects helps the overall goal of making the world a better place.

Moreover, I think I am more optimistic than Kaplan and LaChance about these shows. For every person who might watch them and think, “wow, this is a unique instance of miscarriage of justice” there must be several who walk away from it thinking “if this atrocity happened in a case that was highlighted by a podcast, imagine how many more people are languishing in prison for crimes they did not commit who haven’t been featured in podcasts yet.” I said as much in my commentary on the podcast and on the radio.

Happily, the high-profile success of the vanguard shows of this genre led to a whole slew of podcasts seeking justice for the wrongfully convicted. Just recently, the podcast Proof led to the exoneration of two men in Georgia. At the same time, a seemingly contradictory trend is visible: podcasts that reopen cold cases and present theories of the case can help revive interest in unsolved murders and sometimes put terrifyingly violent people behind bars, as well as highlight atrocious behavior that might or might not be criminally defined in an effort to get justice for the victims. I say “seemingly” because, in both cases, the underlying assumption seems to be: podcasters can grease and speed up the wheels of justice faster and better than, say, Innocence Project lawyers.

Why is that? Consider what might be the first example of this genre: Paradise Lost and Paradise Lost 2, the documentaries about the murders of three children in West Memphis, Arkansas, and the convictions of Damien Echols, Jesse Miskelley and Jason Baldwin. The documentaries evoked enormous interest in the cases, and with the weight of celebrities and advocates, within a few years, everyone who knew something about these cases became convinced that the three were wrongly convicted. This newly fueled interest led to some movement in the case, ending in a new trial for Echols and, eventually, in an Alford plea for all defendants that set them free. Shortly after the plea, understanding the power of media, Echols and his wife Lorri Davis produced a documentary of their own in 2012, which featured better forensics and more novel analyses of the evidence.

What happened with the West Memphis Three case is instructive. The media can bring to the public voices form the scene. Unbound by technicalities and rules of evidence and of legal ethics, they can reinterview witnesses, examine forensic evidence with improved technologies, and have candid conversations with legal actors (some of whom might be retired at that point.) They can tell a story in emotionally artful ways that can persuade the public that an injustice has been done. I’m beginning to think that the Innocence Project might want to invest a considerable part of its budget in podcasting.

One argument against the use of podcasts in this way might be that they draw arbitrary, sporadic attention to certain cases at the expense of others. That is surely a problem. But isn’t sporadic, arbitrary attention that corrects injustice better than no attention at all?

The other challenge might be that the proliferation of these podcasts, with every fresh journalist or journalism aspirant hoping to be the one to stand on the courtroom stairs and celebrate, their impact will become marginally smaller, to the point that we will stop paying attention. I don’t think we’re at that inflection point yet. Moreover, the exoneration technologies (primarily the improvement and lower costs of DNA testing) are exposing more and more of these cases (there are also stark racial patterns) and I think we still need all the podcasts we can get.

#SmithfieldTrial: The Most Absurd Miscarriage of Justice You’ve Never Heard Of

St. George Utah

The first thing you notice upon waking up in Saint George, Utah, is the breathtaking, majestic beauty of the mountains. The striking nearby towering rocks, a bright red against the blue sky, are echoed in the grandeur of the far away mountains in shades of gray and blue. Let your gaze drop a bit and you’ll contrast this dramatic natural scenery with the ugly sprawl of an extensive strip mall, festooned with motels, cheap restaurants, and highways. But much of the town is a celebration of beauty, starting with its most visible landmark. Established by Mormons who fled Vermont and then Illinois, the town was divided into lots, which were raffled between the pioneer cotton-growing families. Brigham Young, whose winter residence is open for public touring, dreamed up the big temple, which gleams in its colossal whiteness, along with its steeple, in the middle of town. Elder Edwards, who leads the tour, tells us that Young was unhappy with the original, shorter steeple; After his death, lightning struck the offending steeple, which persuaded the townspeople that Young was speaking to them from the next world, and they built one of more impressive stature.

Mormon Temple in St. George, Utah

The town nowadays is a mix of Mormon heritage, a faith still practiced by much of the population and ever-present in landmarks and street names; college professors and students from Utah Tech and Dixie University, among other institutions; artists, who are responsible for the many works of public art decorating the town’s many squares and traffic circles; and endurance athletes running and cycling along the mountainous trails. There is a phenomenal independent bookstore, an old-fashioned barbershop, a historical theatre showing international horror films, and a vegan restaurant, Gaia’s Garden Café, which whips up delicious rice bowls and exquisite matcha lattes.

In the center of town stands the Fifth District Courthouse, where my friends, Wayne Hsiung and Paul Picklesimer, stood trial this week for burglary and theft. The facts? Wayne and Paul, along with two others who pleaded out, entered a pig factory farm in Beaver County, Utah, operated by Smithfield Foods, and rescued two dying piglets, Lily and Lizzie.

Smithfield

Smithfield, a major supplier of pig meat to Whole Foods, Costco, and other large retailers, claims to raise the pigs “humanely”, but the truth is very different. The footage obtained by Wayne, Paul, Andrew, and Jon shows what actually happens inside the facility (which is now owned by a Chinese company).

“Operation Deathstar”, featuring footage capture by DxE activists.

The two piglets the activists removed from the facility, Lily and Lizzie, were nearly dying, suffering from a variety of ailments. Importantly, Smithfield had falsely declared that it ceased its use of gestation crates (confinement cages for mother pigs that do not leave them any room to move), and the investigation exposed that these were still in use.

Smithfield was extremely invested in its good name, which allowed it to market its pig meat as “humanely raised.” Exposing the truth would have adverse consequences for the company. And so began an investigation by the FBI, which would not only involve spending my tax money and yours on an extensive hunt for the piglets by a “six-car armada of FBI agents in bulletproof vests”, but also hurting the pigs and traumatizing sanctuary employees. Glenn Greenwald, who covered the story for the Intercept, wrote:

The attachments to the search warrants specified that the FBI agents could take “DNA samples (blood, hair follicles or ear clippings) to be seized from swine with the following characteristics: I. Pink/white coloring; II. Docked tails; III. Approximately 5 to 9 months in age; IV. Any swine with a hole in right ear.”

The FBI agents searched the premises of both shelters. They demanded DNA samples of two piglets they said were named Lucy and Ethel, in order to determine whether they were the two ailing piglets who had been rescued weeks earlier from Smithfield.

A representative of Luvin Arms, who insisted on anonymity due to fear of the pending criminal investigation, described the events. The FBI agents ordered staff and volunteers to stay away from the animals and then approached the piglets. To obtain the DNA samples, the state veterinarians accompanying the FBI used a snare to pressurize the piglet’s snout, thus immobilizing her in pain and fear, and then cut off close to two inches of the piglet’s ear.

The piglet’s pain was so severe, and her screams so piercing, that the sanctuary’s staff members screamed and cried. Even the FBI agents were so sufficiently disturbed by the resulting trauma, that they directed the veterinarians not to subject the second piglet to the procedure. The sanctuary representative recounted that the piglet who had part of her ear removed spent weeks depressed and scared, barely moving or eating, and still has not fully recovered. The FBI “receipt” given to the sanctuaries shows they took DNA samples “from swine.”

Several volunteers at one of the raided animal shelters said they were followed back to their homes by FBI agents, who dramatically questioned them in front of family members and neighbors. And there is even reason to believe that the bureau has been surveilling the activists’ private communications regarding the rescue of this piglet duo.

Value of the pigs

Lest this suggest that the pigs were of immense value to Smithfield, between 15 and 20 percent of the piglets, who grow up sickly and starved in the factory conditions, are exterminated. And sometimes, this mass extermination take the form of mass suffocation, as another DxE investigation revealed in 2020. Matt Johnson, who uncovered this horrifying practice, was charged with a violation of Iowa’s ag-gag laws, but the charges against him were dropped. It’s worth reading Marina Bolotnikova’s Current Affairs story about Matt’s legal exploits.

Paul and Wayne were not so lucky, and the trial against them, with charges for agricultural burglary and theft, proceeded, animated by the interest of Utah’s state attorney, who receives campaign donations from Smithfield. On Wednesday night, I flew to Las Vegas and drove two hours into St. George, ready to testify on Wayne’s behalf.

I was not there as an expert witness, but rather as a character witness: I know, like, and respect Wayne, have collaborated with him on lawful campaigns such as the fur ban in San Francisco (which was successful and later expanded throughout California), have spoken on his podcast, and have invited him to my classroom to show the footage and speak with my students (many of whom considered his visit the highlight of the entire course.) Coming up with a witness list and crafting the legal arguments was complicated. Judge Wilcox, who presided over the trial, severely limited what would and would not be admitted. In a series of blog posts, and in a book chapter, I explained that the natural legal framework in open rescue cases was the necessity defense: a justification for breaking the law in order to prevent a worse evil from occurring where no legal options to prevent it exist. But arguing necessity would open the door to ample proof of this “worse evil”, including showing the footage of Smithfield’s barbaric practices, and that Judge Wilcox did not want to allow. So, Wayne and Paul would rely on other defenses: claim of right, lack of mens rea (no “intent to commit a felony within”), and a lack of value of the “property” in question. They would show the footage to illustrate that the piglets were worthless to Smithfield. Even so, Wayne, Paul, Paul’s Utah attorney Mary Corporon, and the small team of dedicated law students who supported them with research, would face a ferocious uphill battle in their efforts to introduce relevant evidence in the face of Judge Wilcox’s determination that this was “a burglary case” and he would not tolerate it becoming a political soapbox.

Because I gave testimony only on Friday, I was banned from watching the trial footage in advance. I say “trial footage” because Judge Wilcox, who described the activists as “criminals” and “vigilantes” severely curtailed access to the trial. The activists, many of whom flew or drove hundreds of miles to support the defendants, would not be allowed in the courtroom. Judge Wilcox allowed only five people in the court at the time, anonymized the jury and, at some point on Thursday, cut off the WebEx streaming of the case, launching into an angry tirade against “vigilantes” (there is no evidence of intimidation or, really, anything that was not peaceful, 100% legitimate protest). Moreover, the legal team, who operated from a nearby AirBnB, saw strangers in suits skulking around the bushes surrounding the property and removing their trash, and when they came out to speak to them, the strangers fled in a black van, saying something into a worn microphone, and falsely claimed to be the “owners” of the AirBnB. At least one side of the trial was determined to uphold due process, and I didn’t want to mingle with the activists who were watching the trial, so I spent hours on Thursday hiking the mountain ridge and visiting Pioneer Park, Red Cliffs Desert Garden, and several city landmarks, like the temple and Brigham Young’s home. I got to talk to a lot of kind and pleasant city residents, many of whom knew that the trial was taking place there (it landed there through a change of venue from Beaver County, where half the jury pool would be comprised of Smithfield employees.) Throughout it all, I wondered why this trial evoked such panic or, more accurately, why the panic was so painfully misdirected at those who exposed the horrific cruelty rather than those who perpetuated it.

The answer I came up with, which I later saw play out again and again throughout the trial, was this: There is nothing more threatening to a human being than raising even the remote possibility that one is not a good person. People will go to incredible lengths of self deception, cognitive contortion, and actions in the world, to avoid confronting even the remotest possibility of a blemish on the goodness that is such an inexorable part of their self identity. This is true for all those who consume Smithfield’s products, or, really, any other animal products, and try to avoid any footage that might show them that they are complicit in something horrible. This is also true for all those who protect these abominable secrets–law enforcement agents, prosecutors, judges–who so desperately want to cling to the belief that they are the good guys and on the right side of this that they flout due process, the constitutional public trial clause, the jury trial rights, and pretty much any other constitutional protection the defense has.

Fifth District Courthous

The panicked blockade of transparency was evident throughout the trial (as I’m now piecing together from what I saw with my own eyes, my conversations with the legal team and the journalists, and the WebEx footage and twitter stream I followed after I got off the stand.) During voir dire, one prospective juror said he knew what jury nullification (the power of the jury to decide a case according to their moral convictions, rather than the law and the evidence) was. The judge struck him, saying that he wanted to “save a peremptory challenge for the prosecution.” This strikes me as outrageous, even against the backdrop of hostility to nullification in criminal courts. Judges admonish juries that they must decide the case according to the law and the evidence, and, as explained in this useful and well-written piece by Jordan Paul, “deliberately conceal [nullification power] by scrubbing references to nullification from the entire process.” In United States v. Kleinman, a Ninth Circuit case, the Court held that a jury instruction “severely admonishing” against nullification was unconstitutional, but that the resulting error was harmless. But the fact that nullification exists and is lawful is a matter of general knowledge, so it seems that Judge Wilcox overstepped the constitutional line here.

It would not be the last time. The most ferocious battles in court were fought over the extent to which the very limited allowable defense scope (what with necessity and, subsequently, claim of right off the table) required showing the jury footage from Smithfield. The entire field of evidence law deals with the balance between admitting evidence with probative value and suppressing evidence that is prejudicial. The kicker, of course, is that what makes a good piece of evidence probative is also what makes it prejudicial–namely, that it evokes a strong response. This kind of strong response might suggest that there is something awry at Smithfield and, by extension, that consuming their pork was not a good thing to do, so Judge Wilcox would not allow it. Many of the films were censored and limited to still images. In a more reasonable decision, the judge cut off the sound of the video, to exclude Wayne’s narration of what he was seeing inside the facility. but with the effect of silencing the agonized screams of the pigs. Nevertheless, some footage would have to be allowed, because of its direct import to the questions of mens rea and value. To commit agricultural burglary in Utah, one must have a specific intent to remove property: Wayne and Paul argued that their intent was to document conditions on the ground, and that the removal of the pigs was for the purpose of saving them. As to value, Wayne and Paul argued that the pigs, deathly ill from deprivation, a foot injury, and an inability to nurse, were of no value to Smithfield, undermining the definition of “property” in Utah’s theft statute.

Some of the ensuing battles over evidence are described in this informative KSL piece by Emily Ashcraft:

The jury trial for Hsiung and Picklesimer stretched throughout the week, and was filled with objections from the attorneys in an attempt to keep the trial within the parameters set by the judge. Mary Corporon, who represents Picklesimer, and Hsiung, representing himself, would argue that certain steps taken by the state should allow them to bring in more information about the farm conditions, including showing the video.

Janise Macanas and Von Christiansen, Beaver County attorneys, objected when a witness started talking about other conditions, specifically about a dumpster on the farm with dead piglets inside or the mother pig’s health.

Testimony was offered by veterinarians chosen by both sides, an investigator, a Smithfield employee and a man who was part of the same undercover operation of the farm in 2017.

After all of the testimony in the case had been offered, the judge issued a directed verdict dismissing the first count against both Picklesimer and Hsiung. Corporon argued that each of the burglary counts was specific to a building, and that the two defendants did not expect to see piglets in a gestation barn — meaning they would not have been entering the barn with an intent to steal.

There was also a discussion about a possible mistrial. Hsiung and Corporon argued that the prosecution asking a state veterinarian about care for the pigs at the farm opened the door for them to bring in new evidence about the conditions of the farm. The prosecutor said that was simply an effort to show that the two specific piglets would have had a chance of receiving medical care that next day.

The judge said bringing in that much new evidence at the end of the day on the last day of trial was not an option.

“I’m not going to open up testimony again in this case, and if we need a mistrial, we’ll have one,” Wilcox said.

Ultimately, Corporon and Hsiung decided to continue with the trial, after the state’s attorneys agreed with asking the jury to not take into account that testimony.

On Thursday, Hsiung called himself to the witness stand, asking himself questions and then opening himself up to questions from the other attorneys. While questioning himself, he admitted to taking the piglets, but said it was not theft because he took piglets that were of no value to Smithfield.

Hsiung said the case is not about burglary and theft but about animal cruelty and animal rescue. The two piglets were given names after they were taken from the facility, Lilly and Lizzie, and he spoke about their conditions.

Although he said they did not intend to take piglets, during his testimony he admitted they had a veterinarian on hand in case they brought out animals and that they had evidence that there were animals dying on the farm. Hsiung said they had taken animals in the past during similar operations, sometimes with the owner’s permission.

He argued that he had a belief that the piglets were abandoned property, and prompted witnesses to testify that the piglets were more of a liability to Smithfield and he may have been helping them by removing the piglets from the property. Ultimately, though, he said the purpose was to save the piglets from “certain death.”

“We were not there to be burglars or thieves,” Hsiung told the jury. “We were there just to give aid to dying animals.”

I witnessed the judge’s wrestling with the factory farm content firsthand. Under direct examination, I spoke about how Wayne and I met and about some of the animal rights advocacy we had done together. When asked to give examples of Wayne’s honesty and integrity, I started explaining how open rescue works–that open rescuers keep their faces revealed and their identities known and take responsibility for what they’ve done even when it means facing scary consequences. Just as I started speaking, Janise Macanas objected, the judge (who seems to have been a bit taken aback by fancy professors siding with the defendants) put the kibosh on the rest of my testimony, and that was that.

Here’s what I would have said, if I were allowed to speak: Wayne’s honesty and integrity are obvious to anyone who meets him. His willingness not only to face incarceration in Utah, but possibly to lose his license to practice law in California (a previous attempt to disbar him for saving animals failed), is admirable. Every social movement that tries to improve the world must encompass lots of different people: the food engineers and companies that bring us Beyond Burgers, the chefs and bloggers who bring us wonderful vegan recipes, the mainstream advocacy groups that seek legal change, the law clinics and nonprofits, and yes, the people who are willing, at great expense and sacrifice, to actually risk going into these horrendous facilities and tell us how our food is being made. These folks provide an invaluable service to the movement, which should embrace them rather than distancing itself from them. It’s crystal clear who the good guys and who the bad guys are in this case. And intelligent, curious people should be very suspicious when someone is trying to keep important information from them.

The mistrial issue was quite heartwrenching to experience. Dr. Sherstin Rosenberg, the veterinarian at Happy Hen sanctuary, testified about the condition of the piglets, discussing their inability to nurse and their injuries. Not content with this, the prosecution put Dr. Dean Taylor, the state veterinarian, on the stand as a rebuttal witness. But it turned out, during Dr. Taylor’s evidence, that Smithfield employed a grand total of two veterinarians for more than a million pigs. Later rebuttal testimony from a Smithfield employee, which confirmed this, led to a flood of questions from the jury about the medical condition of pigs at Smithfield (to the point that I wondered how many of the jurors would eschew pork, or become vegan altogether, after this trial). Judge Wilcox was visibly despaired by all this. He had tried so hard to rein in the trial and avoid discussing the real issues, but, despite his best efforts, the animal cruelty stuff slipped from under him and occupied front and center at the trial. In desperation, he proposed holding a mistrial. I thought this would be a fantastic end to the whole thing. My hope (perhaps misguided?) was that the state of Utah would realize that they should stop throwing good taxpayer money after bad, and refrain from reprosecuting–particularly in Paul’s case. I also hoped (perhaps against hope?) that, after declaring a mistrial, Judge Wilcox would pick up the phone, call the state attorney, and tell him that reprosecution was not worth it. But Wayne and Paul decided to proceed forward with the trial. The unsatisfying compromise was that Judge Wilcox instructed the jury to ignore the rebuttal testimony from the veterinarian and the Smithfield employee.

What happened at closing arguments is aptly described in the KSL article:

On Friday evening, Christiansen claimed Hsiung admitted to taking the animal, but attempted to minimize his crime with contradictory testimony. He said Hsiung testified that he didn’t intend to take a pig, but in the script of the video shared at trial, Hsiung said, “If we see an animal we can take out, we’ll take them out.”

He talked about how Hsuing and the rest of the group went into the facility on March 6 and March 7, but did not take any animals on March 6. Christiansen said this shows they were not just taking piglets that needed emergency care but were taking pigs as part of a publicity move.

“The pigs were just props in a video, props in a movie,” Christiansen said.

He said the animals were alive and did have value, and any evidence of poor health displayed at trial is speculation.

Christiansen also talked about the charges for Picklesimer, and said holding the camera was a very important role in the burglary, allowing Direct Action Everywhere to produce a video and raise donations.

“Every person that participated in the burglary that night was part of the crime,” the prosecutor said.

Picklesimer’s attorney, however, said he did not even touch a pig, and did not intend to commit a theft and should not be held accountable for something he didn’t do.

She told the jury if they do believe Picklesimer might be guilty based on being part of the group, the should directly consider the worth of the piglets to Smithfield.

“Bottom line these piglets are worth nothing, it’s a net negative,” Corporon said.

She said what Picklesimer did was like standing next to someone else who was emptying a trash can.

Hsiung presented his arguments last, making a plea to the jury to consider their feelings and recognize a difference between stealing an animal and helping an animal.

“We did not intend to take a piglet out who had anything of value for Smithfield,” Hsiung said, arguing that these two piglets did not have any commercial value.

He told the jury he did not want to be acquitted based on a technicality, but hoped they would make a ruling that would make a difference to animal rights.

“If you defend our right to give aid to dying animals, defend the right of all citizens to aid dying and sick and injured animals, there’s somethings that will happen in this world. Companies will be a little more compassionate to the creatures under their stewardship. Governments will be a little more open to animal cruelty complaints. And maybe, just maybe, a baby pig like Lilly won’t have to starve to death on the floor of a factory farm,” Hsiung said.

He argued that theft and burglary are not the right way to charge him in this case, and suggested different steps should be taken to address actions like this, including companies and governments listening to their suggestions or charges for trespassing.

I’m now back at home, processing what I saw and heard at the trial, as the jury in St. George is deliberating the verdict. I very much hope that the little exposure they received to the horrendous evil that is factory farming will persuade them of the negligible value this “property” has for its “owners”. I only wish they could see the piglets now. One member of the legal team, who lives in Colorado, gets to visit with the pigs once ever few weeks, and reports that they are lovely and doing very well. I also hope Wayne and Paul made the right call. We had some conversations about whether going with the mistrial was “good for the movement” or not; both parties made numerous mistakes, as is inevitable in the course of a complicated trial, and those would not be repeated in the second trial. But a well educated, curious jury is also something that is difficult to give up. Having done my very small part in this case, I’m keeping my fingers crossed for the right outcome. If you want more coverage, following @SmithfieldTrial on twitter, as well as journalist Marina Bolotnikova and activist Jeremy Beckham, will be useful, or use the hashtag #SmithfieldTrial.

Love Makes a Family: Does Reproductive Justice Include Only Biological Reproduction?

Recently I listened to Chen Zausmer’s fascinating podcast “What Are You Waiting For?”, which documents her egg-freezing journey. The podcast is moving, disquieting, and extremely well done, documenting Zausmer’s emotional process as well as the physical and financial practicalities of the procedure. Among the things that make this a worthwhile listen are the embedded recordings of personal conversations between Zausmer and her friends and family, in which they raise uncomfortable, emotionally loaded subjects such as “giving up” on couplehood and a two-parent framework, questions on reproductivity and self worth, womanhood and femininity, and other complicated, soul-searching issues. It is also an admirable example of honestly and vulnerably offering a meditation on subjects that can be, and are, deeply private issues for wide public consumption.

When someone does make the choice to make their very private affairs public in this form (the podcast is accessible on Spotify, Apple Podcasts, and pretty much anywhere else podcasts can be found), though, the audience’s thoughts about it are not merely nosy/judgmental commentary on another private person’s journey. Each of us consumes art and media through personal eyes. And, in my case, that meant listening to four lengthy episodes detailing a plethora of emotional, physical, and financial trials and tribulations focused on a very particular biological choice, without even a brief mention, a suggestion, or a whiff of possibility, around nonbiological parenting through fostering and adoption. And as an adoptive mom, this was crazymaking.

This is not a personal critique of Zausmer’s options–she is, of course, free to do as she wishes with her body, soul, and financial resources–and for what it’s worth, she comes off as a thoughtful person who engages in unflinching self-inquiry, which is admirable. But those who don’t want their deepest personal struggles to evoke a range of emotions, thoughts, and reactions, seldom make podcasts out of them, so I’m offering some thoughts in that spirit.

As in the pro-choice/pro-life debacle, becoming a mom through adoption has gifted me with a more nuanced perspective that untethers parenting from biology, which I elaborated on elsewhere (here and here.) I always feel like these perspectives are left unexamined because of the strong bias in favor of biological parenting. The conversations about reproductive justice that I’ve been privy to not only prioritize biology but actively push any notions of nonbiological parenting out of the conversation. For a number of years I’ve been surrounded by people, some of them close friends, who have gone through numerous circles of IVF hell, back-and-forth with surrogates and the adjacent ethical issues, and the deep tragedies of miscarriages and losses. And yet, suggesting adoption or fostering to people who are undertaking unbearable physical, emotional, and financial difficulties in their torturous journey to become biological parents is considered terribly rude, and the social consensus is that people’s willingness to jump through absurdly challenging hoops to ensure that they go through pregnancy/birth, or even just that their genetics are passed on, should be unquestionable accepted, without opening other doors and possibilities.

I remember noticing this when I attended an event celebrating Dov Fox’s new book Birth Rights and Wrongs. To his great credit, Fox provides a thorough and thoughtful overview of the myriad problems caused by reproductive technologies, including unreported medical conditions of sperm donors. The book’s agenda, however, is clearly to empower parents to address these serious technological and medical challenges through lawsuits in torts. One walks away with the sense that any procedure for procuring biological children–as complicated, experimental, expensive, and taxing as it might be–should be the unshakable right of any prospective parent, complete with the legal power to sue at every wrinkle at which something goes wrong. Expanding these litigation rights is a tacit expression of the law’s preference for, and encouragement of, biological reproduction.

This may be outside the cultural/biological/social norm, but I know I’m far from the only one: I have never wanted to get pregnant or to give birth, and at the same time I am thrilled to be a mom and my son is the light of my life. I accept that many, perhaps most, women do want to experience pregnancy/birth. But it is hard for me to responsibly participate in conversations with people who are experiencing horrific suffering and sorrows through their pursuit of biological parenting at all costs, and are completely unwilling to even consider other paths to parenting. Because we are very open about our adoptive journey, over the years I’ve happily had several lengthy conversations with friends and acquaintances who, throughout this journey started “despairing” and “thinking about adoption”–as if it’s a secondary choice to biological reproduction, only to be pursued if the “normal” path has failed, because multiple IVF rounds involving extensive travel and six-figure-dollar amounts is apparently more “normal” than offering a home to a newborn that also saves the life of young people saddled with an unwanted pregnancy. Afterwards, sometimes I get a phone call saying that they discussed it amongst themselves and at least one of them was adamant that what they really wanted was “a child of our own.” Get it? A child of our own–as if your kids through adoption or fostering are not really “your own”, or it’s some testament of your inferiority that you chose nonbiological parenting. I always want to ask: Why is it so important for you to propagate your specific genes, and how are they uniquely better or more important to propagate than those of other members of the human population? It’s especially jarring when, in opposite-sex couples, virtually all of the physical suffering is endured by the woman, and it’s the man who clings to the genetic imperative at the price of his partner’s health and wellbeing. Can I say something about this, compassionately and gently? Of course not! It’s none of my business, and there’s such a taboo against suggesting this even in the most compassionate way–and I submit the taboo exists because we harbor a deep bias against nonbiological parenting.

But this is not just an issue of people’s personal choices, for whom I have all the compassion in the world (another person’s suffering is 100% understandable and relatable, and gets 100% support and love from me, even if I’m not on board with the cause of the suffering.) It raises serious questions for all of us as a community. Societies that do not fully support solid, comprehensive sex education, keep young people ignorant of their bodily functions, allow young men to walk away from the consequences of their sexual activity, sticking young women with the agonizing expectation that they carry unwanted pregnancies to term, are societies that produce babies born into untenable situations who need stable, solid, loving homes. And such societies should do everything in their power to guarantee a good starting point for all these babies–starting with completely destigmatizing, and even encouraging all forms of nonbiological parenting, through resources, education, and unwavering social support. Investing enormous amounts of medical progress, public funding, and unquestioning social validation in biological procreation for the wealthy at all costs has a price, and that price is delegitimizing and neglecting fostering and adoption. And in the current political climate, this does not strike me only as precious and capricious, from a governmental perspective, but also as morally untenable.

My great aunt Carmella had a beautiful child-free life: she had her own business and traveled around the world with a lovely and similarly adventurous husband. They worked hard and arrived at a place of wealth and financial comfort. And yet she was deeply unhappy throughout it all. One of the main reasons: She desperately wanted to be a mother, bitterly envied her siblings (including my grandma) who had kids, and this filled her with frustration and contempt. Toward the end of her life, which she spent giving backhanded compliments and insulting family members, my mom called her to let her know that we had a son, and shared briefly about the adoption. There was a long silence on the other end of the line, and then Carmella, who was never at loss of words, said quietly, in a little girl’s voice: “Hadar is very wise.” When my mom shared this with me, my heart broke for Carmella and for the decades of joy and fulfillment she robbed herself of by not even considering fostering and/or adoption.

If you are reading this, no matter where you are in thinking about parenthood, what I most desire for you is to be happy. And what is most important to let you know is that there are many ways for you to find happiness. You can, and definitely should, consider the many possibilities of becoming parents through both biological and nonbiological means. You can, and definitely should, consider the very legitimate possibility of living a wonderful life full of meaning and fulfillment as a non-parent (with or without children in your life in one form or another.) A lot of the suffering we undergo in life when we choose a certain path comes from the stubborn (and incorrect) belief that it is the only viable path to our destination. I don’t want this for you–I want to you to offer yourself more freedom, and this freedom starts in your own mind, outside the socio-cultural expectations, pressures, or inducements. I’m sending you good wishes on this journey.

My Chesa Recall Punditry: The View from Bayview-Hunter’s Point

Last night provided me a unique vantage point on the Boudin recall effort: I was an inspector at a polling station in Bayview-Hunter’s Point, which is a neighborhood with a long history of neglect and criminalization. It is also unique in its demographics: 33.7% African American in a city that is just under 6% African American as a whole. There were approximately 650 registered voters in our precinct. 18 voted by mail and 17 voted in person, for a grand total of 35 voters. That’s 5% of the electorate. Things were somewhat better, but not by much, elsewhere in the city. By stark contrast to the 2020 Presidential election, pre-election mail-in voting in this local election–the third in 2022!–was very low. Our Federal Election Deputy (FED), who came to visit us throughout the day, reported that the polls were quiet and dormant throughout the whole day, pretty much everywhere.

Why does this matter? Take a look at a map published in today’s Chron of the neighborhoods that voted against Boudin:

At first glance, the story appears to be that neighborhoods associated with Asian-American populations tended to support the recall more fervently. This is unsurprising, and only talked about in hushed tones even though I think it is a big part of the story. In the last few weeks I saw concerted, fervent activism in support of the recall from very similar crowds to the ones who drove the SFUSD recall from a few months ago: it’s not all about out-of-town Republican millionaires conning unsuspecting masses into false consciousness. These are pretty much the same parents who resented the performative woketalk from the Board about school renaming and lottery admissions to Lowell. I suspect that some residual energy poured over from the previous recall (which I think was 100% justified) to this one (which I think was not.) The superficial narrative might be that a permissive and forgiving attitude toward prosecuting some people (read: presumably, young African American men) incentivizes crime and victimization (read: toward, presumably, Asian American victims) in the same way that lowering standards and talking about reparations and abolitionism (read: a narrative that supports, presumably, a monolithic African American interest) harms the pursuit of hard work and excellence in education (read: the purview, presumably, of Asian American students and parents.)

This story, which suggests the fomenting of racial animus between these two groups, building on the racial conflict undertones of the previous recall, is not completely preposterous. Most of the people who came to vote in person yesterday at our precinct were African American, and from their conversations, I gathered they all came motivated to vote against the recall. But this assumes that we can understand and generalize trends from a pretty minuscule percentage of San Franciscans. It’s not that the people who live in my beautiful city don’t care about criminal justice administration. NextDoor and other social media outlets are full of people chewing each other’s heads off about whether this or that wave of smash-and-grab, retail theft, or other incident is Chesa’s fault. But how many people care enough about this to put work into reading a hefty booklet and considering their positions on a three-page ballot, in which Prop H was the very last voting issue on the back side of the third page, for the third time in a row in the same year?

Over the years, I’ve returned again and again to Vanessa Barker’s excellent book The Politics of Imprisonment. Barker conducts a three-way comparison of penal politics in three states: California, Washington, and New York, finding that California’s political culture more easily lends itself to punitive experiments because of its polarization and populism. I write about this culture in Yesterday’s Monsters, when I show how politicized and emotion-driven the issue of parole is. In this kind of political environment, where money and strong interests can push something into the ballot as well as foment a well-oiled promotion machine (complete with all the tricks and deceptions we’ve come to expect from the initiative process), it is not difficult to swing the pendulum back and forth, from big reforms to big cancellations, from experiments in jurisdictional shifts to draconian policies masquerading as victim’s rights policies, and everything in between.

Ultimately, I think that what we saw here was just an exercise in manipulating this big machine and effectuating huge change through a relatively small number of voters. Direct democracy can be, and is, too direct when it imposes this burden thrice a year on already exhausted, grieving, anguished, and ticked off people with an empathy deficit from three years of awfulness that followed four years of a different kind of awfulness. In sum, whether or not the small minority who bothered to show up at the polls has false or true consciousness matters much less, sadly, than the forces exploiting the initiative process far beyond the Bay Area.

Would it have made a difference if the entire Bayview-Hunter’s Point electorate showed up en masse and voted against this recall? Of course it would. But after everything we’ve all been through–the impoverished folks in the neglected parts of town disproportionately suffering–we just didn’t have it in us to make yesterday a proud, sparkling moment for people-powered government, and even though it’s not our fault, we will all have to live with the consequences. Increased incarceration and the return of cash bail will not deter violent crime (but people’s attention will wander, and those who supported the recall will stop paying attention). Crime might go up (despite the recall, the supporters will say, or because of the recall, the opponents will say) or it might go down (because of the recall, supporters will say, or despite it, opponents will say) and we will continue to delude ourselves that dumbing down complicated policy decisions, deceiving people with oversimplified campaigns, and seasoning everything with some piquant interracial conflict, is how democracy should work.

The truth is that crime rates are like the weather. They rise and fall for a variety of reasons, only a few of which we can measure, and most of which have nothing to do with who is in charge. They have very little to do with big punishment trends (though, in localized situations, they do depend on effective police work in solving crime, which is a damn difficult thing to do when the community doesn’t trust the police enough to help.) It takes a real sea change in policy to effectuate changes in criminality patterns. But our megalomanic assumption that we can control crime rates through tinkering with policies will persist, and we will keep tinkering, until no one has any energy left to vote.

I offered a few more thoughts on KCRW here.

Urban Alchemy in the News

SF-based nonprofit Urban Alchemy, which I discussed here and here, is in the news this week. First, there was BBC coverage, and this morning a lengthy investigative story in the Chron. Mallory Moench and Kevin Fagan’s story is interesting and informative, and offers lots of useful perspectives, but does adopt an unnecessarily skeptical emphasis and tone, which rankled me because I work in the Tenderloin and see the transformation it has undergone through Urban Alchemy’s intervention.

In the early pandemic months, the open drug market around my workplace was so brazen and violent that my students feared going out of their dorm rooms at the Hastings towers. Mayor Breed and SFPD tried to resolve the problem by doing police sweeps of the area, which only resulted in new people coming in to deal and shoot every day. At some point I was contacted by a civil rights org, which shall remain anonymous out of compassion, with a well meant, but absurd, invitation to support their lawsuit against gang injunctions with an amicus brief refuting the existence of the drug market. Refuting? I thought. Are you kidding me? Do you have eyes? Do you live or work here? It was a prime example of what I’ve come to recoil from: the refusal, by some quarters of the Bay Area’s delusional left, to concede that crime is real and has real victims and real implications (that’s why I have no patience for armchair abolitionism, by the way.)

Then, our Dean signed a contract with Urban Alchemy, which has them support the area adjacent to the school. This proved to be a complete game changer. The first morning I showed up to work with the UA practitioners surrounding the perimeter of the school I was amazed; the change in energy, the peacefulness, the friendliness, the sense of personal safety, were palpable. I started chatting with some of the practitioners around my workplace, who came from backgrounds of serious incarceration, and found that their personal experiences provided them with just the right interpersonal skills to intervene in complicated situations in the Tenderloin. Finally, someone is doing the right thing, I thought. There are so many occupations in which a background of criminal invovement and incarceration is a priceless resource – and this includes lawyering. Recently, I interviewed people with criminal records who applied to the California bar and wrote:

In the few occasions in which bar membership with criminal records are discussed, it is not in the context of diversity, but rather in the context of a public concern about “crooks” in the legal profession. Accordingly, the bar orients its policies, including the recent requirement that current members undergo periodic fingerprinting, toward the exposure and weeding out of “crooks.” Criminal experiences are seen as a liability and a warning sign about the members’ character.

My interviewees’ interpretations were diametrically opposed to those of the bar. All of them, without exception, mentioned their experiences in the criminal justice system as catalysts for their decision to become lawyers, and most specifically to help disenfranchised population. Public interest lawyers who spoke to me cited their own criminal experience as an important empathy booster with their clients. Even some of the ethics attorneys cited their personal experiences with substance abuse as a bridge between them and clients with similar histories. By contrast, commercial lawyers, especially in big firms, remained circumspect about their history. Two lawyers spoke to me in the early morning hours, when they were alone in the office, and others spoke from home, citing concern about letting their colleagues know about their history. My conclusion from this was that the interviewees’ background was a rich resource that provided them with a unique and important insider perspective on the system, which remained unvalued and tagged as uniformly negative baggage.

To Moench and Fagan’s credit, their piece does represent this view; one of their interviewees explicitly says that looking at justice involvement as an asset, rather than a barrier, is revolutionary. But overall, their reporting exceedingly amplifies the voices of the naysayers above those of the many people who live and work in the Tenderloin who are quietly grateful for Urban Alchemy’s presence in the streets. You’ll be hard pressed to find detail in their story of the many good deeds that the practitioners perform daily, ranging from lives saved with Naloxone (several times a week, I’m told) to skillfully providing my female students a sense of personal safety when walking the Tenderloin in the evening. Several students described how a practitioner subtly positioned himself between them and someone who was getting too close, and how the threatening situation evaporated before it could evolve in unsavory directions. Moench and Fagan give this a passing nod, but their piece fails to properly capture the magic.

This brings me to another observation: There hasn’t yet been a project evaluation for Urban Alchemy’s Tenderloin intervention. Executing such a study would be a daunting task for several methodological reasons. First, there’s no comparative baseline for the intervention. The situation before their intervention was so abnormal that it would be hard to use it as a control, even if data were available. If the comparison is geographic, it would suffer from the usual problems with situational crime prevention: focusing an intervention in a particular geographical zone means that criminal activity is displaced onto adjacent zones, so the two comparators are not independent of each other. If the study is structured as an in-depth phenomenological project (which is what I would do if I were to do this–and a colleague and I are thinking about this), there’s the Star Trek problem of the Prime Directive: researchers or students hanging out in the Tenderloin to conduct observations would, themselves, change the dynamics in the area that they study. A big part of Urban Alchemy’s success lies in the fact that they do things differently than SFPD. They do not rely on surveillance cameras; in fact, they eschew them, and having any sort of documentation would be detrimental to their working model. And people standing in the corner for hours and taking notes would chill everyone’s behavior. Fieldwork here has to be conducted with care.

I have one more observation to offer: I now work in a service profession that requires crowd management and interpersonal intervention (as a city pool lifeguard) and also have multiple years of experience managing crowds in rowdy, inebriated, unusual situations (as a Dykes on Bikes registration volunteer at Pride and at Folsom Street Fair, for example.) The vast majority of people you encounter at these settings are lovely and a delight to be with. But the one or two percent who are decidedly not lovely can really test anyone’s self control. I’m talking about the driver who insists on driving the car into the area you’re trying to cordone off, the slow dude who insists on swimming in the lane with faster people and not letting them pass, or the people repeatedly told (politely) to move to the sidewalk so that they are not run over by trucks who don’t go where they’re told. My experiences are nothing compared to what the Urban Alchemy practitioners encounter every day on the Tenderloin streets. I really wish our reporting on this were sympathetic to the enormous challenges of interpersonal interactions in this very rough patch of our city and more appreciative of how much conflict and anxiety are spared when people who know what they’re doing take the lead.

Applying Lessons from Circle Swimming to Prison Advocacy

The number of letters, emails, calls, etc., I got after I published this was truly moving overwhelming. It looks like many advocates and activists share a sense of immense exhaustion and feeling unwell and many of us want to get better. For me, as you know, this journey includes total commitment to a whole-food, plant-based diet and to daily outdoor exercise: running, cycling, and swimming. The last of these is the only one at which I’m a veteran; before I semi-retired from the sport in 2016 I was an open water marathon swimmer. These days, for practical reasons (little boy and full-time job=> no time to schlep to the bay, acclimate, and then pour hot tea down my gullet to defrost myself) I swim for no longer than an hour in one of our city pools.

We don’t have many public pools; the ones we have are beautiful and the staff is great, but there is a serious nationwide lifeguard shortage. This means opening hours are extremely limited and the pools get crowded. It’s become rare to have only one person to split a lane with, let alone have the whole lane to yourself. At one of the pools I swim in, there are regularly at least five people to a lane. In the other it’s about three and four. Because these are strangers, not masters teammates, the lanes aren’t calibrated to people’s exact pace, and the fast/medium/slow lane categories are completely arbitrary. Bottom line – I regularly end up in a lane with people who swim either faster or slower than me. Many of the slower folks are delightful people who stop at the pool end to let you pass them, but unfortunately not everyone has the proprioception or the humility to do it. And so, sometimes I get stuck behind folks who really should know better and who make it impossible to pass them (I should say – because I know firsthand the aggravation this causes, when I swim with faster folks I’m hyperconscious of them and let them pass at every opportunity!).

I’ve narrowed the possible coping strategies to five, and some of them are better than others:

  1. Do nothing and fume. Or, do nothing and slap the water in rage, or kick a little extra hard to vent your frustration. This does not help – not at all – and essentially the only person I punish by marinating in my anger over this is myself.
  2. Appeal to higher authorities, namely, to the lifeguards and ask them to reorganize people by lane. This is kind of drastic – I’ve never done it myself nor have I seen it done in city pools. At some private clubs I’ve swum in, the lifeguards are experts on tactfully doing this, but it also carries the frustration of dealing with your problem through third parties rather than practically resolving it yourself.
  3. Change lanes mid-lap and swim back. Here’s how this works: You swim behind the slow person for as long as conceivably possible (to earn yourself some good laps later) and then, right before the wall, shift to the other lane and swim away fast. This obviates the need to confront the other person in any way, and if they are clueless it won’t upset them, either, but you could run into problems confusing the slow swimmer or other swimmers and, in some situations, could be a bit dangerous.
  4. Aggressive mid-lap pass. This is an emergency move, and an undesirable one, but sometimes people don’t leave you much choice. You carefully check if there’s anyone coming toward you in the opposite lane (i.e., that the other swimmers are already behind you) and them quickly shift to the left lane and beat the slow swimmer to the wall. Beyond the obvious risk, this is also a physically aggressive move and I would not be surprised if it upset and scare the slower swimmer.
  5. Confront the person at the wall, either through body language (touch their foot lightly, shift to the middle of the lane to block their turn) or actually say “can I pass?” I’ve never seen anyone manifestly refuse to let another person pass after a confrontation, but for a lot of people who look forward to their pool time as their happy place, it could be several laps before the work out the nerve to do it (now that I think about it, I bet there are cultural differences in pool behavior between different countries).

The wisdom we should all cultivate (I’m working on this myself, yo, so don’t think I’m anywhere close to circle swimming nirvana!) lies in deciding which of the five approaches is appropriate for each situation. For example, I think that option 1 is only good when you have a few minutes of cooldown before your workout is over, and then it’s best to channel your frustrations into working on your butterfly or backstroke or do a couple of leg laps without fins, which slows you down coming into the wall. Option 2 is only good when you’re at a pretty hierarchical or at a pretty expensive facility. As to options 3-5, their desirability depends on who you’re dealing with, and here it’s worth remembering that you don’t actually know the person from Adam, and that behind the cap and goggles, “slow-ass” might actually be a lovely person on whom you’re unfairly projecting the frustrations of your day. It’s quite possible to choose the wrong strategy and add unnecessary stress to what should be a blissful hour for everyone–which is where self-compassion and compassion for others comes in, bigtime.

I think about this stuff a lot when I’m in the water, and a couple of days ago, while discussing this with a friend, I realized that these ways of handling conflict with someone you don’t know have recurred elsewhere in my life, especially in the context of prison advocacy. As I work on our book in progress about COVID-19 in California prisons, I’m realizing that a lot of stuff has been happening, at the state and at the county levels, behind the scenes, and while we were privy to the horrific outcomes of all this through the information we got from our incarcerated friends and family members, we were not exactly privy to the inner workings at CDCR or at the Receiver’s office. We know that they paid no heed to the AMEND report, but did they consult with anyone else? It seemed not from the Quentin litigation, and it seems not from the Plata litigation, but surely not everyone who works there is pure, unadulterated evil, and we need better information about internal disputes and conflicts on how to manage this. We know, for example, that the rank-and-file physicians at Quentin were clamoring to save lives (I’ve spoken to prison workers and many of them are decent, conscientious folks who have had a horrific time for the last year and a half.) We also know that various county jail officials worked extremely hard to make vaccination available to their population (this I know firsthand because they consulted me, and they impressed me as being decent people who were well aware of their responsibilities.) I actually don’t know, and have no way of knowing, whether the top brass at CDCR, CCHCS, and CCPOA sleep well at night. And the problem is that the best approach to getting this pandemic under control as numbers in prison are beginning to rise again depends a great deal on understanding these people and where they come from, and on figuring out how to best work with them, around them, or against them.

Over the course of this struggle, I had some experience doing variations on all of these themes. The litigation, of course, is full of animosity; all the media work, especially the press conferences and the news editions, was also highly confrontational, on purpose. By contrast, I got to collaborate with Orange County officials on producing their vaccine advocacy video because there were people there who were trying, in good faith, to save lives, and it was worth working with them. And in introducing the AMEND FAQ into prisons and our videos recorded by formerly incarcerated folks, we sought to work around CDCR to raise vaccine literacy behind bars by providing sources that our friends and neighbors inside could completely trust–thus working around CDCR (and, to be honest, counting on smuggled cellphones to do the work.)

In order to draw more careful lessons about how I’m going to do advocacy in the future, I need more complete information on which of these strategies worked and which didn’t – and why. For now, I’m providing some help in the form of a wonderful partnership with the Covid in-Custody Project, spearheaded by the unfailingly superb Aparna Komarla (read her recent and worrisome stories on the Davis Vanguard COVID page.) From now on, this blog will host all the data collected by the Covid in-Custody Project at this link, where you can get information about CDCR as well as several jails. Look for a post on resident and staff vaccine rates soon.

My heart is still very much in this battle, even as my body, mind, and spirit needed a health reset–I’m not constantly on twitter or facebook but I still care very much about what’s going on and am figuring out ways in which I can be optimally useful in this fight. In the meantime, if you swim at a city pool, in the name of all that is holy, please let faster swimmers pass you at the wall.

The Hidden Side of the Prison Labor Economy on Marketplace

This morning I spoke with David Brancaccio of Marketplace Morning Report about the perversions and frustrations of the job market for formerly and currently incarcerated workers. The broadcast version is above – here’s the longer version from Marketplace:

This interview is part of our series Econ Extra Credit with David Brancaccio: Documentary Studiesa conversation about the economics lessons we can learn from documentary films. We’re watching and discussing a new documentary each month. To watch along with us, sign up for our newsletter.


There’s a striking scene in Brett Story’s documentary “The Prison in 12 Landscapes” that captures the complicated and exploitative aspect of rehabilitative prison labor programs: An incarcerated firefighter, explaining how they’re not allowed to talk to others on the job, adds that — because of their criminal record — they have a slim chance of becoming a firefighter upon leaving prison.

It’s an experience that’s common not just for prison firefighters, but for people who work making telemarketing calls, care for elderly or infirm people in prison, and more, according to UC Hastings law professor Hadar Aviram.

“There are many limitations on people working in these occupations, and because of that, the public is unaware of the fact that many of the people that they interact with every day are working as incarcerated people,” Aviram said in an interview with “Marketplace Morning Report” host David Brancaccio. 

While there are laws in place to protect formerly incarcerated people from hiring discrimination, Aviram noted that many barriers to employment remain, including the scarcity of rehabilitative work programs and their stringent terms and conditions.

“The programs themselves are very selective, it’s difficult to get into them, not all of them are evidence-based,” Aviram said, “so oftentimes they will train people to do jobs that they can’t actually get on the outside.”

Below is an edited transcript of Brancaccio’s conversation with Aviram on the other jobs prisoners commonly do, the challenges facing formerly incarcerated people who are trying to find work and what Aviram thinks can be done to increase their chances of finding meaningful jobs that take advantage of skills learned while in prison.

David Brancaccio: In this film, we see a California wildfire at first. It turns out that one of those working on the fireline, to keep it from spreading, is a person in prison, in a special prison work program. Would a program like that be common or fairly rare?

Hadar Aviram: Here in California, it’s extremely common. And among the people who saved probably thousands of lives in the last summer, when we had the wildfires, were many, many incarcerated people working as firefighters.

“The range of occupations that people have in prison”

David Brancaccio: It’s interesting, right? Because often people don’t know that, in fact, there’s a ban on people who are incarcerated speaking with members of the public while out there fighting the fire.

Aviram: Yes, there are many limitations on people working in these occupations and, because of that, the public is unaware of the fact that many of the people that they interact with every day are working as incarcerated people. A lot of the customer service on the phone, a lot of the furniture, things that are being manufactured — sweatshirts for dozens of Ivy League universities are made in a prison in Kansas, where people are getting paid 50 cents a day. It’s really astounding, the range of occupations that people have in prison. And I think that firefighting is an especially interesting example, because they are saving lives and they are working shoulder to shoulder with professional, non-incarcerated firefighters. The big irony, of course, is that then they get out and, at least until recently, they couldn’t get a job as firefighters, despite being trained, because they have a criminal record.

When formerly incarcerated people are unable to get jobs

Brancaccio: I mean, that’s the thing. There’s, of course, a move that we’ve spent some time covering on this program to ban employers from, for the first initial part of a job application, asking if you have a criminal record, but employers have a way finding out anyway, or it comes up during the background check.

Hadar Aviram

Aviram: Absolutely. I was one of the big pushers for this kind of, we call it “ban the box” initiatives, to screen people without knowing their criminal record. But, it turns out, colleagues of mine at the Urban Institute did a study and they found out that rather than employers discriminating on the basis of criminal records, they have started discriminating on the basis of race as a proxy for criminal records. So, for example, they’ll get job applications, and they don’t know which of the people have a criminal record, but they will interview the person called “Brad” rather than the person called “Jamal,” under the assumption that they are using this as a proxy for the criminal record that they don’t have an access to. It’s very frustrating, because you’re trying to create equal opportunities for everybody, but these things have such a protean quality that they pop up no matter what kind of protections you introduce in the workplace.

“Oftentimes prisons turn to these work programs because they think they’re going to be rehabilitative or whatever. But for the most part it’s economic considerations of the prison itself.”

Hadar Aviram, UC Hastings law professor

Brancaccio: What do you do about that? I mean, you know, there’s an ongoing national discussion, at some level, about what we’re addressing here. But, in part, when people have worked alongside people that they find out have criminal records, and they see firsthand that they’re like the rest of us, sometimes that can help break down these stereotypes?

Aviram: Absolutely. And this is a truth that has been found in studies all over. I mean, people have done studies, for example, of members of fundamentalist churches that, you know, will be railing against single mothers and gay people, but then they have a gay uncle or a niece who’s a single mom and they love them to bits, and that softens, a little bit, this approach.

And the same thing holds for people with criminal records. I just saw a study done at a college where there was a strong correlation between students who personally knew fellow students who were formerly incarcerated and their opinions about: Would they befriend somebody with a criminal record? Would they be willing to date somebody who had been in prison? So, truly, personal acquaintances and education and exposure is the most important thing that we can do to break down these barriers.

Brancaccio: Back to this notion of labor done by people in prison: When the phone rings at our house, it could be someone who is incarcerated at the other end of the line?

Aviram: Yes, absolutely. This is just one of many, many, many occupations that people engage in in prisons. Phone solicitation, customer service, a lot of manufacturing of everyday items that you wouldn’t even have an idea come from prison. And, of course, a lot of the work inside prisons. I don’t know that a lot of people know this: We have a high population of people who are aging and infirm in prison. And oftentimes the people taking care of them are trained caregivers who are incarcerated themselves. So a lot of the things that we think the state is providing, it’s actually people from inside the prison who are incarcerated themselves who are doing it.

Is prison labor, by definition, exploitative?

Brancaccio: What’s your sense, having studied this — I mean, is it, by definition, prison labor, exploitative? I mean, no one’s paid market rates for that labor.

Aviram: This is a complicated question, because there’s the world that we would want to live in, in which everybody gets minimum wage and in which you are actually trained for the reality of the marketplace. And there’s the realities of the world we’re in, in which prison labor, to different extents, is exploitative, and we therefore try to sort of improve people’s lot within the conditions that they’re in.

We have to keep in mind the fact that, to some extent, prison labor is training people for conditions in the market on the outside. But the problem is that oftentimes prisons turn to these work programs because they think they’re going to be rehabilitative or whatever. But for the most part it’s economic considerations of the prison itself. The programs themselves are very selective, it’s difficult to get into them, not all of them are evidence-based, so oftentimes they will train people to do jobs that they can’t actually get on the outside. Up until recently, the firefighting was one such example, but there are many other examples. The programs that do have occupations where people can work on the outside, like marine technology or carpentry, are highly selective; very, very few people can get in. Overall, a more realistic prospect for people coming out is to become independent contractors and work for themselves.

The kind of work formerly incarcerated people end up doing

Brancaccio: That’s what people end up doing? Working for themselves?

Aviram: Exactly. For example, you’ll find people that are putting together landscaping companies, house work companies. And there are some examples that are really amazing, of nonprofits that people have put on the outside, where they’re working in the marketplace and just doing amazing things. Right next to Hastings, which is where I teach, is a neighborhood called the Tenderloin in San Francisco, which, during the pandemic, became pretty much an open-air drug market — lots of homeless people, lots of misery, mental health, substance abuse, oftentimes people overdosing. And the mayor was upset by this, and a couple of times they sent the police to clean up the neighborhood with everything that stems from that. That was extremely difficult, because there were no solutions for people other than just sort of cleaning up the aesthetics.

And then a nonprofit stepped in called Urban Alchemy. They operate public restrooms, which is incredibly important in these kinds of neighborhoods. They operated safe sleeping sites during COVID. They calmed down violence, they actually revived people with Naloxone who had overdosed multiple times every week. They did amazing things. And what enables them to do this work more effectively and more peacefully than the police, and almost without any show of force, is the fact that they are former lifers, that the people who work at Urban Alchemy acquired these peacemaking and mentoring skills that they use every day on the job in decades in prison. They were elders and mentors on the yard when they were inside, and they retain this kind of calm mentorship role on the outside. And they have done such an amazing job that the change in energy in the neighborhood is palpable.

Brancaccio: Those are special skills that are in demand. It’s a shame that some employers don’t fully recognize this.

Aviram: Exactly. There are many ways in which we look at a criminal record or a previous prison stay as a liability. This is of course difficult, because at any given moment, 1% of the entire population of the United States is incarcerated. So we have a lot of people who actually have acquired skills and strengths where they were that we can use in the marketplace. I’m not just thinking about occupations that are entry-level jobs, I’m thinking even about entry into, say, the California bar, as lawyers. Think about what somebody brings in, coming in with an insider perspective on a criminal justice system, reassuring their clients about what’s going to happen to them, you know, being able to present a realistic perspective. There are so many strengths that you acquire.

One of the most successful programs we have in California is called marine technologies, it’s people who work underwater fixing ships and underwater structures. And this is partly a skill where it’s a great advantage to be used to being in a very overcrowded environment. This is difficult for a lot of people. But people, unfortunately, who spent time in our grossly overcrowded prisons have acquired this skill. This is a market strength that is being undervalued and stigmatized for no good reason.

Brancaccio: I was reading about that marine program. Recidivism, going back to the ways of crime, is near zero for people who’ve gone through that program.

Aviram: Those are good jobs. If you get a job like that, there is no reason for you to commit crime, because you have gainful employment. We have to think more evidence-based about these kinds of programs and strengths in the market and prepare people for that.

Brancaccio: Those programs often can be expensive within the prison. Sometimes when budgets are tight, as you’ve written, that’s the program that gets cut.

Aviram: Exactly. It’s one of the downsides. And this is something that I wrote in my first book “Cheap on Crime,” that we, overall, saw the prison population shrink since 2009. This was a result of the the recession of 2008. But one of the side effects of that that was more sinister was that there were drastic cuts to rehabilitative programming. And that created a big difference, a big gap, between prisons that are set in urban centers, where there’s lots of volunteers and do-gooders that step in and create these programs. Here, for example, in San Quentin [State Prison], we have Silicon Valley entrepreneurs volunteering to teach people the internet, which is very difficult when you don’t have internet behind bars. So we have all of this programming because of the volunteers, because they’re stepping in to fill in the gaps that the state cannot fill. But there are many, many prisons in the United States that are located in these remote, rural locations, very, very difficult to get there, and very difficult to get quality programming that actually prepares people to get good jobs once they get released.