July 07, 2011

A Sociologist Goes to Prison

image By Peter Kaufman

Associate Professor of Sociology, SUNY New Paltz

Although I’ve never been arrested, never broken any laws (as far as I know), and never even received a speeding ticket (really, it’s true), last week I made my third trip in less than two years to the Shawangunk Maximum Security Correctional Facility (aka “the Gunk”). I was not there to visit a family member or loved one nor was I there to collect research. I was there to teach sociology to the inmates.

After parking my car in a lot that was closely monitored by security cameras and armed guards high up in a tower, I proceeded to the visitor’s center by walking next to a twenty foot fence that was covered in barbed wire. At the visitor’s center I was required to pass through a metal detector and relinquish all metal materials—coins, keys, belt, pens, etc. I then followed the Gunk’s librarian through a dizzying maze of no less than seven security walls and doors until we finally arrived in our assigned classroom.

In a few moments, I was standing in front of a group of twenty men who ranged in age from 20 to 60. Although I was instructed not to ask the men about why they were in prison, I had been told by the librarian that those who end up in the Gunk are there because of the most serious and usually violent crimes: murder, rape, assault with a deadly weapon, armed robbery, drug trafficking, child molestation. Most of the men in the Gunk will not be getting out of prison any time soon and some will never get out.

In the three visits I’ve made to the prison (speaking to a total of about 75 inmates), I can only recall two or three white inmates in my classes. The near majority of inmates, or at least those who signed up for the classes, were either Black or Latino (officially, the Gunk is 84% Black/Latino and 14% white).

As a sociologist, I know this is not surprising given that the national prison population is disproportionately comprised of Blacks and Latinos. This extreme racial imbalance has been described as The New Jim Crow by legal scholar Michelle Alexander who argues that the mass incarceration of Black men amounts to a modern-day system of racial control.

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In New York, the racial demographics of state prisons are similarly skewed by race:

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Source: http://www.prisonpolicy.org/importing/importing.html

Besides not being able to ask about the crimes they committed, I also cannot ask the inmates anything personal such as where they came from. But it is no secret that many inmates in New York State come disproportionately from the five boroughs of New York City:

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Source: http://www.prisonpolicy.org/importing/importing.html

If we dug a little deeper into these demographics, what we would find is that many of these inmates do not come from just anywhere in New York City; rather, they come from among the poorest and most economically disadvantaged areas. And this is not just true for inmates from New York City. It is true for inmates in the United States prison system as a whole.

According to a sociological study by Becky Petit and Bruce Western, there is a very strong relationship (a correlation) between race, social class (which the researchers measured by completed level of education) and the likelihood of going to prison. For example, the researchers found that 30% of Black men without a college education served some time in prison while this percentage nearly doubled to 60% for Black men who were high school dropouts.

The correlation (some would even argue this is a causation) between poverty, race, and crime illustrates the importance of viewing the world from a sociological perspective. Poverty is not a single variable. With poverty comes lots of other poor things: poor neighborhoods (that often lack safe public spaces), poor schools (that often have high teacher turnover, outdated books, insufficient computers, and the subsequent high dropout rates), poor health and nutrition (asthma, diabetes, obesity are common ailments among the urban poor), and poor job opportunities (deindustrialization has made many of these neighborhoods into economic ghost towns).

But if you listen to the popular discourse about crime you’ll quickly realize that many people do not have a sociological understanding of this situation. People often fail to see (or refuse to see) the correlation/causation between poverty, race and crime. Instead of blaming the structural conditions that may contribute to a young, non-white male turning to a life of crime, many people blame the individuals directly.

They take a social Darwinist approach and argue that these individuals are just not fit enough to survive. In effect, such an argument suggests that these are defective individuals, a bunch of bad apples. But how, then, do we explain that so many of these so-called defective individuals come from the same racial and economic group? Is this just a strange and unfortunate genetic coincidence?

According to the National Council on Crime and Delinquency, the United States now has more people in prison than any other country in the world. Despite making up only 5% of the world’s population we now incarcerate nearly 25% of the world’s prisoners. This is a troubling statistic for a country that prides itself on being the land of the free.

If we really wanted to do something about our nation’s prison population we have to take a long hard look at the social structural reality of the criminal justice system. Blaming individuals is easy because it exonerates the rest of us. Why should we law-abiding citizens have to do anything if it’s those bad apples that are causing the problems?

But as C. Wright Mills suggested in the first chapter of his classic book, The Sociological Imagination, we are not just dealing with one person’s personal trouble of going to jail. Instead, we need to recognize that the prison population in the United States is a public issue and therefore it requires that we make societal, and not just individual, changes if we have any hope of shedding our newfound reputation as the incarceration nation.

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Comments

Peter, I'd be interested to hear what teaching sociology to inmates is like. Do the prison administrators allow you to teach topics related to crime and deviance? How do the inmates respond to the course material? How do you navigate teaching sociology without being able to ask about your students' backgrounds? I'd like to know more about this experience!

A really interesting insight into a rather hidden phenomena. I heard last year that the black prison population is actually akin to modern slavery as they are forced to work to produce household paints, white goods for the kitchen etc. Without this labout the US economy could not operate. Do you have any insight / stats on this?

Stay in touch - i am a Sociology Teacher at a really nice school in Essex, UK. I will direct my students to this blog - they may add to it too.

Thank you for your very interesting insights and for the fact that you volunteer your time for this worthy cause. It is also important to bear in mind that the wealthier (and whiter) people are in many instances no less likely to commit crime. There are several sociological factors that help to explain why they are not represented in the prison population. Since most incarcerated people are in for drug related offenses, let's use that as an example for why wealthier people don't end up incarcerated:.

-they commit crime in different ways which makes them much less likely to be caught. Consider the risks of smoking a joint on the city street corner because your apartment is unbearably hot vs smoking a joint by your fenced in swimming pool in the suburbs.


-police profile racial and ethnic minorities and the poor. An executive in a suit smoking what could be a joint or a cigarette will not get a second look from police, but a young black male will probably be scrutinized.

-the criminal justice system creates bias in favor of those who can afford a good defense lawyer versus the poor who must rely upon overburdened and underpaid public defenders (whose funding has been further cut in recent years).

-and perhaps most importantly, it is the wealthy who define what constitutes a crime through their control of the political system, the media and dominant cultural understandings. A crack dealer who sells a dangerous addictive substance is a criminal. A tobacco executive who sells a dangerous addictive substance is a legitimate business person.

This is a very partial list of sociological factors that must be considered when seeking to understand crime and criminal justice. Individualist "bad apple" perspectives are vacant diversions from the real issues at hand.

Good food for thought here. Thanks for such an informative article and the extensive explanation, it's been very useful.

Good food for thought here. Thanks for such an informative article and the extensive explanation, it's been very useful.

When i read your article it reminded me of what we are learning in our sociology class. We read about this experiment that was done. They wanted to see what would happen if they put 2 dozen young men who have had no criminal records what-so-ever and they put them in jail. Half of the men were the guards and the other half were the ones put in jail. This was such an interesting experiment. The men who volunteered to do this actually did change. The ones who were the guards got out of control because they loved being in power and took it to extremes. The men who were jailed felt worthless and felt like they had no motivation to live. They ended up just following what the guards said like programmed robots. Some men even had to leave this experiment because they were so depressed. So when i read your article i could understand it.

The social implications of this are tremendous. I recently read that as many as 70% of black professional women never marry largely because of the small pool of black men available. The black men that are available are more likely than black women to marry outside of their race further decreasing the number of men available for them to marry.

Pretty good post. I just stumbled upon your blog and wanted to say that I have really enjoyed reading your blog posts. Any way I'll be subscribing to your feed and I hope you post again soon.

Wow this page has just helped me write my annotated outline for my Prison/Incarceration for my Sociology class!!! I have been doing so much research and trying to find something good from a sociologist point of view! This is perfect!
Sincerely, Dawn Campbell

Demographics will keep on increasing unless as people of the world we try to make a drastic change. The demographic in the article above on, U.S. incarceration rates by race will either increase which means more African Americans will be incarcerated compared to white people. Though, if people leave racism in the past this demographic could be shattered.

Please consider introducing Heather’s story, a series of ebooks entitled “Her Letters from Prison”, to your readers and followers.

Heather Heaton's new ebook series ("Her Letters from Prison") is an inspirational resource for reading pleasure, review, contemplation, and discussion.

Heather's own testimony: "God changed my life in prison!"

"Her Letters from Prison" (Parts 1 & 2) will validate your inquisitive thoughts and doubts about what goes on in women’s prisons (It is what it is!); and it can justify the efforts spent toward women’s prison ministries. These two ebooks can be a motivational (tell-it-like-it-is) resource for drug rehab/prevention and reentry programs, especially when combined with "Her Letters from Prison – Part 4: Recycled – Second Time Around".

"Her Letters from Prison" is a non-fiction, inspirational, romance ebook series; with Heather's original letters (with prison art) included as images for authenticity. Heather's story describes how female offenders are perceived and handled (often abused) in the criminal justice system. The story continues (Part 4) to describe Heather's first two years of re-entry back into the real world and how she ended a destructive narcissistic-codependent relationship.

"Her Letters from Prison: Women-in-Prison" (Part 3) contains two PowerPoint presentations prepared for the University of Alabama/Women's Studies "Women in Prison" conference. Both presentations are based on Parts 1 & 2 of Heather's story; and they are entitled "Women-in-Prison (Almost Invisible)" and "Women-in-Prison (Facts/Myths)". Also, Heather's personal testimony is included in the Part 3 publication.

You can go to http://www.heather-heaton.com, and click on a direct link to Heather's Amazon.com and/or Smashwords "book pages" for “Her Letters from Prison”. Alternatively, you can visit Heather’s author pages:
1. http://www.amazon.com/author/heatherheaton
2. https://www.smashwords.com/profile/view/heatherdh

Heather’s ebooks are also available in paperback format. The paperback book ("Her Letters from Prison") may be obtained by contacting Heather through her website "contact" form. The paperback book contains Part 1, 2, and 3 ebooks. "Her Letters from Prison - Part 4" will be published as its own paperback book soon.

Thanks for your time and consideration.

Heather Heaton

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