Students Thinking About Crime and Punishment


Recently, students were asked to  write a “Thinking about Crime and Punishment” paper for my criminology course. Here are some of my favorite quotes:

“We as society are constantly putting labels on individuals, and we are all human beings no matter what our social status is, background, race, or sexuality, we all are the same.”

“…But the majority of people who go to prison end up back there at some point.  I think one thing that needs to be changed throughout our prisons is to focus their attention more on helping these criminals get better.”

“We as a nation seem to be so good at incarcerating people but we fail to realize that we need to correct them and not leave them locked up. This became fact to me when I went to see the “A Day at Stateville” play that was portrayed by actual inmates who were there and who served 30 or more years in the Illinois prison system. Hearing of the living conditions and of what these individuals have gone through is mind boggling.”

“When I went to the Prison tour this semester I felt a sense of shame; not because I was at a prison learning about the corrections system or why people were committing all of these crimes, but I felt like I was degrading these prisoners by looking at them through protective barriers and through thick glass walls like looking at animals in a zoo.”

“We as the next generation of law enforcement really need to show compassion to the people we arrest because we are there to discipline them for their mistakes in hopes of preventing them from doing it again. We should also see this as an opportunity to serve our public and the people we care about and it should not give the perception that cops are the ones being served by their community.”

“Many American proudly proclaim that this is the greatest country to live in– the land of the free, but are either of these statements really true? America is ranked number sixteen in quality of life according to the Social Progress Imperative and number one in rate of incarceration (R. Walmsely, 2011). Further, the firm IPSOS Mori ranked 14 countries on their ignorance about social statistics and the United States ranked second. None of those statistics lends support to the initial claims, but what is the solution?”

“A specific example was discussing drug testing for welfare. It wasn’t anything I had supported beforehand, but after being asked “Why do we think [or assume] poor people do drugs?” I realized that I had never thought critically about it before that. Also, to learn that in states where that policy has been implemented it was ineffective which bolsters the “ignorance in social statistics” ranking. I’ve seen many Facebook “shares” supporting that policy, but no empirical evidence to back it up. This is an example of how ignorance can have a domino effect in the criminal justice system.”

“This brings me to the second important lesson that has influenced how I think about crime – compassion and how we treat others. The format of the class – teacher’s attitude, class discussion, etc…- facilitated a lot relation of lessons to real life. The two strongest examples were the prison tour and the Changing Mind stage reading. Putting faces to offenders and re-humanizing them and also bringing up the question “when is the debt to society paid?” Many people simply want to “lock criminals up and throw away the key”, but don’t want to think about the repercussions of this. Watching documentaries on how powerful different environments can be  in influencing criminal behavior – such as poverty or growing up in violence ridden streets – demonstrates that maybe we shouldn’t just be asking “What does this criminal owe society?”, but “Has society failed these individuals? And if so, what do we owe them?” This is probably a very controversially thing to suggest – that society may owe criminals, but with the current system I think it’s a fair question. I believe in justice, I believe in being punished for wrongdoing, but I also believe in second chances, redemption, and helping out your fellow human.”

Investigate Black Southern Church Burnings as Terrorism

Fire SC Church

Since the mass shooting of nine African Americans at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in downtown Charleston, South Carolina, there have been seven Black southern church burnings. The media often does not cover these stories with the same intensity the do with other types of crimes. A church is a place of solace for people–a place where people go renew their spiritual strength. These acts of violence are meant to intimidate African Americans and therefore should be treated as acts of terrorism. Here is the link to a petition asking the United States Department of Justice to investigate these burnings as acts of terrorism. Please join me in signing the petition.

A Sister’s Love: You See an Inmate; I See My Brother

I don’t usually write about my personal experiences on my blog. However, I’m often asked why I’m so passionate about corrections. As I reflect on this question, there are a number of answers that come to mind. First, I worked as a correctional officer and I have seen firsthand that the term, “correctional facility” is a misnomer. We currently incarcerate close to 2.3 million people, and another 8 million are on some time of community corrections. We have seen some marginal declines in the prison population, but nothing to suggest that we are “correcting” offenders. Yes, offenders bear some personal responsibility for turning their lives around, but what are correctional professionals doing to assist offenders with this process? Correctional administrators and personnel often give lip service to rehabilitation and treatment. They know all the nice, pretty words to say but their words don’t hold up to close scrutiny.

Second, I’ve been to numerous jails and prison across the United States, and see that many correctional professionals receive minimal training to do their jobs effectively. For example, in Tennessee correctional officers attend the Tennessee Corrections Institute for 40 hours of training to become certified as correctional officers. This is hardly a sufficient amount of time to train officers for the people and situations they will likely encounter. There is insufficient training in the area of mental illness, women’s health, drug addiction, and the needs of aging and terminally ill prisoners. Correctional officers and inmates deserve better treatment than this. We should require rigorous training standards to ensure the best working environment for officers, and to increase the odds that inmates will have a real opportunity to turn their lives around.

Third, I’ve been conducting correctional research for a little over a decade. The research indicates that much of what we do in correctional facilities is woefully ineffective. We’ve just recently turned to evidence-based correctional policies, which is a step in the right direction. However, as researchers we often do a poor job of translating our knowledge into policy in the field. I feel a personal responsibility to talk to correctional professionals about “what works” in terms of rehabilitation and treatment. I reach out to the professionals in my community in both prisons and jails. I try to engage them in conversations about correctional research in an effort to improve conditions for correctional officers and the prisoners they serve. That’s right—the prisoners they serve. If correctional facilities were actually correcting offenders, we’d have lower recidivism rates and that would translate into safer communities. Correctional professionals need to view themselves as service professionals, too. Until they do, little will change. It’s easy to blame the inmates, but correctional professionals need to be held responsible as well. For example, the recidivism rate in Illinois hovers around 52 percent. If your customer service stats looked like this, how long would you remain employed?

Finally, none oZackf these reasons alone are why I’m so passionate about corrections. Let’s get real for a moment. I became passionate about corrections from my personal experiences. You see, I had an older brother, Zack, who was incarcerated for most of his adult life. He was an alcoholic and almost all of his criminal offenses were committed while he was under the influence. I do not tell you this to excuse his behavior, but to clarify that much of what he did was the result of his addiction. It was a demon he could not conquer. He spent years in jails and prisons and was encouraged to participate in Alcohol Anonymous (AA) and other self-help groups. However, many of the institutional parole officers and counselors were overworked and simply didn’t have the time or inclination to help him in any real way.

While my brother was incarcerated, he was physically assaulted by a group of inmates and he suffered a severe brain injury. He remained in a coma for two weeks. He could not remember me, other family members, or friends. He forgot how to eat, use the bathroom, walk, and talk. He had to relearn everything. He was like a child. He was never the same. Correctional administrators often mainstreamed him into general population. He was repeatedly victimized by other inmates. His personal belongiZackngs were stolen,  he was beaten, and, at one point, sexually assaulted. A lot of people would say, “So what?!” Others would suggest that he deserved what he suffered because he brought it on himself by way of being incarcerated. To those who would say these things, I say, clearly you’ve never had a loved one behind bars. I didn’t agree with my brother’s choices but I loved him.

I learned that prison is a violent and unforgiving place where rehabilitation is seldom realized, and where human compassion is even rarer. My brother died in prison. He had asked to be moved because he and his cellmate didn’t get along. His cellmate had threatened him on many occasions. While my brother slept, his cellmate heated up a full pot of hot water and doused my brother while he slept. When asked about it later, his cellmate said he did it because my brother’s snoring was too loud. As a result of his injuries, my brother suffered a seizure and died. The man who injured my brother was never held responsible for his actions. Even worse, corrections officers failed to take my brother’s safety concerns seriously. Welcome to our justice system!

So please excuse me when show my passion for corrections. For me and many others, it has had a real impact on our lives. It has taught us that our criminal justice system has a long way to go before we achieve “justice for all.”

Problems with Private Prisons

The problems that plague private prisons like Corrections Corporation of America is not news. However, these stats are worth sharing because the public needs to decided if it’s going to continue to support the use of correctional facilities that profit off of the misery of others. Is it ethical to run prisons whose primary mission is to keep the number of incarcerate individuals high so they can  turn a profit for their investors?

Private Prisons: A Look at the Statistics

Prison Sexuality

Prison sexuality refers to the sexual relationships of individuals confined to correctional facilities. Sexual relationships behind bars may include consensual and nonconsensual inmate-to-inmate sex, or conjugal visits. Prison administrators face some serious questions about how to deal with sexual relationships within their facilities. It is important that they make ethical decisions about policies regarding prison sexuality i.e., policies that seem fair and equitable.
In 1958, Gresham Sykes was the first to write about the pains of imprisonment in his book, The Society of Captives. These pains consist of the deprivation of liberty, goods and services, autonomy, security, and heterosexual relationships. The latter deprivation forces prisoners to seek alternative means for achieving sexual gratification including masturbation, consensual same-sex sexual activity, or coerced same-sex sexual activity. Inmates also may be able participate in conjugal visits with their legal spouse, but this practice is rare (i.e., only six states currently allow it).
Consensual same-sex relationships are relatively common in both male and female prisons. Many inmates report that they were not homosexual when they entered prison but that the need for sexual release was so strong they decided to be “gay for the stay.” Males claim that their participation in homosexual behavior is driven primarily by the need for sexual gratification, while females report the need for both emotional and physical intimacy. There are individuals who enter the prison system who identify as homosexual, too. Like their heterosexual counterparts, homosexual inmates often participate in sexual relationships during their incarceration.
Offenders in most prisons are prohibited from any type of sexual behavior. For example, inmates are not allowed to masturbate or to possess any form of pornographic material while incarcerated. Prison officials often defend such policies on the grounds that masturbatory discharges (seminal and vaginal fluids) may pose a serious health risk for staff and other prisoners. There are reports in male prisons of inmates that have used semen as a weapon and thrown it at correctional staff. The fear is that others will be exposed to sexually transmitted infections (STIs) like the HIV/AIDS virus.
Masturbation is preferable to some inmates more so than seeking out a homosexual relationship. Married inmates report masturbation allows them the sexual release they need while remaining faithful to their spouses on the outside. Additionally, inmates argue that masturbation allows them a sexual release without seeking out a homosexual relationship that might potentially expose them to the HIV/AIDS virus. Male inmates also argue that masturbation allows them to release their pent up sexual aggression, which reduces the likelihood of sexually assaulting another inmate.
Correctional facilities have strict policies against homosexual behavior, too. The need for sexual gratification is a basic human need. The need for sexual gratification coupled with the fact that an inmate’s choices are limited, creates a situation where homosexual behavior may be a natural outcome. Consensual same-sex relationships may help to reduce sexual assault in prison, especially in male prisons. Male prisoners also report that allowing them a sexual outlet reduces the likelihood that they will physically assault staff or other prisoners. Likewise, female prisoners report that they feel less anxious and/or aggressive after having sex. However, Angela Pardue and her colleagues note that homosexual behavior in women’s prisons often increases the likelihood of violence because homosexuality may lead to both the economic and sexual exploitation of prisoners. For example, more experienced inmates may pressure less experienced inmates into homosexual behavior in exchange for protection or commissary.
Participating in homosexual behavior may potentially expose the participants to STIs. Several prisons and jails throughout the United States issue inmates condoms as part of their orientation to prison. Many prison administrators concede that homosexual behavior is a logical consequence of incarceration and the use of condoms is necessary to prevent the spread of STIs. Those who oppose this practice suggest that condom distribution will lead to increased sexual behavior including sexual assault. They also fear condom use will lead to an increase in drug use (i.e., inmates will use the condoms to hide drugs anally) or will disrupt prison operations. Research indicates that these fears are unfounded and that access to condoms does not interrupt the prison routine, represents no threat to security or operations, does not lead to an increase in sexual activity or drug use, and is accepted by most prisoners and staff once it is introduced.
Prison sexuality may lead to sexual violence. There are three major forms of sexual violence that have been identified in female correctional facilities: (1) manipulation, (2) compliance, and (3) coercion. Manipulation refers to using sex as a bartering tool in which sexual favors are performed in exchange for goods or services. Compliance occurs when a female prison reluctantly but submissively participates in sexual behavior because of some real or perceived threat. Sexual coercion ranges from implicit to explicit pressure to engage in sexual behaviors. These forms of sexual violence can be committed by (a) a prisoner against a staff member, (b) a prisoner against another prisoner, and (c) a staff member against a prisoner.
Some prison administrators have policies that permit conjugal visits between legal spouses. Six states allow conjugal visits: California, Connecticut, Mississippi, New Mexico, New York, and Washington. Conjugal visits are available in both male and female prisons. These visits may serve two purposes—controlling homosexual behavior and the preservation of the family. Inmates who have conjugal visits are less likely to participate in same-sex relationships. Prison administrators who permit conjugal visits believe this is also the first step in preserving and/or reestablishing family bonds. As a result, prisons no longer call them conjugal visits but instead use the term “extended family visits.” Increasing the family bond also increases the odds that inmates will stay out of prison.
Many prisoners will choose to participate in same-sex relationship during their incarceration. Prison administrators should do what they can to reduce the likelihood of violence and the spread of STIs. Prison officials should also institute polices regarding sexuality that are reasonable and fair.

Allegations of Sexual Abuse at Karnes County Residential Center

The Karnes County Residential Center (KCRC) houses immigrant families who cross the U.S. border. KCRC serves a temporary holding facility for these individuals until they receive deportation hearings. However, allegations of sexual assault and abuse have surfaced.

Several women allege that they were sexually abused by guards and others workers at KCRC. The allegations include stories of the workers removing the women ate night from their cells for sex while others indicate they were fondled. Some of the guards allegedly requested sexual favors in exchange for money or promised detainees assistance with their cases in exchange for sex.

The Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund (MALDEF) sent a letter to the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement and the Department of Homeland Security calling for an immediate investigation into the alleged abuses at KCRC. Read more about the allegations here.

Please consider signing the petition urging the Department of Homeland Security Office of Civil Rights to investigate the workers at KCRC.

Sign the petition to stop sexual abuse at Karnes.

Ban the Box: Giving Offenders a Fair Chance

“Ban the Box”

The National Employment Law Project (2014) estimates that 70 million Americans—one in four—adults have a criminal record. The majority of employers include questions about a person’s criminal background on their job applications and they use it to screen out applicant with a criminal history. “Ban the Box” or “Second Chance” is a movement to eliminate questions about criminal backgrounds from public employment applications. The goal of the movement is to defer a job applicant’s criminal background check until the applicant has been selected for an interview. The Legal Services for Prisoners with Children supports removing the box from applications for housing, public benefits, insurance, loans, and other services, too. In addition, proponents believe that this law should be extended to include private employers.

Benefits of “Ban the Box”

There are several benefits to adopting ban the box laws. First, it eliminates discrimination against individuals with prior criminal histories based solely on one global question. Removal of the box allows those with a criminal history to remain in consideration for the job at which time they have the opportunity to explain their criminal histories to potential employers. Second, it does not prevent employers for conducting criminal background checks on individuals before they are actually hired. However, if they applicant is otherwise qualified for the position, the hope is that employers will ultimately hire the applicant. Finally, employers working with protected or vulnerable populations (e.g., jobs working with children or the elderly) are exempt from the law. In other words, the law is a middle ground compromise that increases the odds that those with criminal records will be treated fairly during the employment process while simultaneously protecting the public.

Why Should We Care?

Offenders face significant obstacles once they are released from prison, with employment being a major one. We know that employment is an important component of successful prisoner reentry. For example, research shows that employment significantly reduces the likelihood of reoffending (Latessa, 2012; Morenoff and Harding, 2011; Visher, Debus, and Yahner, 2008) and success on parole (National Institute of Health, 2010). Therefore, the ban the box law increases the odds that those with a criminal record may find employment and reduce the likelihood that they commit future offenses.

Major U.S Cities and Counties that Banned the Box

















New Hampshire*

New Jersey

New Mexico*

New York

North Carolina




Rhode Island*






*States that have legislation or administrative orders to ban the box


Latessa, E. J. (2012). Why work is important and how to improve the effectiveness of correctional reentry programs that target employment. Criminology and Public Policy, 11(1), 87-91.

Morenoff, J. D. and Harding, D. J. (2011). Final Technical Report: Neighborhoods, Recidivism, and Employment Among Returning Prisoners. Washington, D.C.: National Institute of Justice, Office of Justice Programs, U.S. Department of Justice.

National Employment Law Project. (2014). Statewide ban the box reducing unfair barriers to employment of people with criminal records. Retrieved from

National Institute of Corrections. (2010). Is employment associated with reduced recidivism? The complex relationship between employment and crime. Washington, D.C.: National Institute of Corrections.

Visher, C., Debus, S., and Yahner, J. (2004). Employment after prison: A longitudinal study of releases in three states. Washington, D.C.: Urban Institute.