Author Archives: justpublics365

Queer Internet Studies Workshop, April 4th

On April 4, JustPublics@365 is co-sponsoring the Queer Internet Studies Workshop, which we (Jessa Lingel and Jack Gieseking) are organizing. The workshop (other co-sponsors includeThe Brown Institute for Media Innovation and Microsoft Research), is aligned with the vision of JustPublics@365 in that it brings together academics, activists and artists around a particular topic. The focus of our workshop will be on the topic of technology and queerness."Los Mismos Derechos" Gay Rights march, Latin America

(Image source: Queer Legislation in Latin America)

Why technology and queerness?

Prefixes like inter-cross- and trans- are deeply familiar to people in queer and feminist communities. In our own research about Internet technologies, we constantly struggle to capture both the benefits and drawbacks of using these same technologies in everyday life.

On the one hand, online technologies are an important tool for historically marginalized groups (like LGBTQ people) to connect across geographic distances, to share resources and to work for social change.

On the other, there are many examples of terrible harm caused by online interactions, ranging from the ability to make anonymous threats to policing images of bodies. Here again, queer folks are frequently the targets of such attacks.

Given that queer folks (like other marginalized groups) can both benefit from and be harmed by online technologies, it’s productive and politically important to think through issues of ethical design, the activist potential of online platforms and opportunities for making queer lives better.

Social network visualization of queer friendship networks(Image: The interwoven and interdependent connections between the 7,855 members of the Facebook group, Queer Exchange, as of December 1st, 2013. Source:  Jack Gieseking CC BY-NC.)

With the QIS workshop, we want to create a space where artists and activists can share their work with each other, where academics can reach across disciplinary boundaries and make connections, were people can learn about institutional resources, technologies and tools that can support their existing projects and foster new ones.  In order to come up with topics of conversation, we asked some of the folks who’ve signed up to attend the workshop to share their key questions about how online technologies both help and hinder queer lives.  Here’s a selection of what they think are the pressing issues in thinking about technology and queerness:

  • Thinking about databases, data mining, subjectivity and normativity, particularly as it relates to surveillance
  • Broadening our understanding of queer politics to include class- and race-conscious politics that prioritize social and economic justice
  • Getting away from the academic practice of identifying communities on the Internet solely to prove that they’re there to an academic audience
  • Thinking about the use of mobile technologies by homeless LGBTQ youth
  • Using the lived experience of LGBTQ people to rethink tech policy

We’re excited about the range of ideas that have surfaced so far, and those that are bound to come up on April 4th. For more details, check out our website.

Hope to see you in April!

~ This post was co-authored by Jessa Lingel and jack Gieseking. Jessa Lingel is a post doctoral research fellow at Microsoft Research, you can learn more about her work here

 Jack Gieseking is Postdoctoral Fellow in the Digital and Computational Studies Initiative at Bowdoin College, and co-editor of The People, Place, and Space Reader (Routledge 2014).

Journalism as Activism for Families Separated by Incarceration

After years writing technology articles for The New York Times and the Internet-only upstart, I felt constrained as a journalist. I yearned to rekindle the inspiration that drew me to the field: covering marginalized communities and exploring new ways to report and share their stories.

Then in 2007, I met Alison Coleman, a woman who had struggled to support her two children while her husband served a 25-years to life sentence in a New York state prison for petty theft under the harsh Rockefeller-era drug laws. She told me that for years she had had nowhere to turn for social or emotional help. Her parents only said, “We told you so” for marrying a black man. She kept to herself at church fearing her congregation would reject her family.

While statistics and political attitudes about incarceration rates in America are closely tracked, the human stories of prisoner families—like Ms. Coleman’s—are virtually unknown to mainstream Americans because this exploding yet unaccounted population is viewed with suspicion and rejected as guilty by association.

I decided to launch a media project to create a geographic and digital community for prisoner families even as social stigma and iron bars conspired to keep them fragmented and fearful.

I came at this as a journalist with a perspective–to show Americans the social cost of imprisonment beyond the political or “get tough on crime” perspective.

I explored and shaped the contours of crowdsourcing (having the community you cover help you cover themselves) and collaboration. Before it became standard practice, I trained people to produce video and audio columns about their experiences. One 22-year-old woman shot a powerful video about spending her first Mother’s Day with her mother outside of prison. As she prepares a special dinner, the mother-daughter banter slowly turns into a tense exchange about the daughter’s feelings of abandonment. The video captures a moment in the fragility of their relationship.

Another novel concept I used was to post a Skype phone number and asked people to leave voicemail with their questions and experiences. I posted these on the site as audio clips. We hear one woman, for example, describe her struggle to care for a loved one as he undergoes cancer treatment in prison. Years later, newsrooms began to use the same technique to engage their audiences.

In all I’ve published nearly 150 multimedia pieces, which when viewed as a whole reveal the financial, social and emotional toll on prisoner families like no other news coverage has.

I’ve produced live Web radio shows–with a community member as co-host–on topics as diverse as finding a job after incarceration and coping with separation during the holiday season when a family member is imprisoned. I’ve posted finely edited videos, each delving into a discrete corner of people’s experiences. In one video, for example, a 14-year-old boy describes the difficulty of having a “perfect moment” with his father when a guard is always standing a few feet away, and his need for a strong father-son bond.

The project’s most pivotal success, however, relied on a fundamental aspect of reporting: persuading sources who feared stigma and worse to speak publicly about their situation. “Our words have been distorted so many times to fit sensational or superficial pieces on TV and in newspapers,” Coleman, wrote about Family Life Behind Bars. “But we came to trust you because you let us share our voices with each other and the world.”

As the project gained momentum, its work resonated with the community. Coleman, who founded Prison Families of New York, a networking group in upstate New York, said the site brings “together a mosaic of voices that let us learn from each other’s challenges and small emotional victories.

~ This post was written by guest blogger Sandeep Junnarkar, Associate Professor, CUNY Graduate School of Journalism. You can follow him on Twitter @sandeep_NYC.

Guns and Suicide: A Public Health Crisis

Guns, the most lethal means of committing suicide, represent a public health crisis.

Most imagery conjured up by the idea of gun violence in the national debate involves on one end, a bad person with a gun, and on the other end, another person scared senseless by the bad person with the gun, waiting for the cavalry.

But the numbers paint a different picture – one that continues to prove difficult to digest for folks on both side of the debate .  In fact, suicide is the leading type of firearm death, and teenagers, young adults, and males aged 75 and older are currently at the highest risk for this type of death. According to the CDC, suicide is now the third-leading cause of death for teenagers.

Of the 100 people who take their own lives every day in America  – that’s almost – 40,000 deaths a year -  most use a firearm.  More people choose a firearm over all other intentional means combined, including hanging, poisoning or overdose, jumping, or cutting. But Americans are not more suicidal than the citizens of other comparable countries (populous, wealthy). They just have more access to the most lethal means of committing suicide. A gunshot is an irreversible response to what is often a passing crisis – possibly worsened by the temporary depressive fog of alcohol. Suicidal individuals who take pills or inhale car exhaust or use razors have time to reconsider their actions or summon help, but gunshots are merciless game-changers.

prviate guns public health

According to the Harvard Injury Control Research Center, the states with the three highest suicide rates (Wyoming, Montana and Alaska) are also the top gun-owning states, and researchers agree that bringing a gun into the home not only increases the risk of gun-related accidents, but also the risk of suicide. Specifically, that research finds:

“Gun owners and their families are much more likely to kill themselves than are non-gun-owners. A 2008 study by Miller and David Hemenway, HICRC director and author of the book Private Guns, Public Health, found that rates of firearm suicides in states with the highest rates of gun ownership are 3.7 times higher for men and 7.9 times higher for women, compared with states with the lowest gun ownership—though the rates of non-firearm suicides are about the same. A gun in the home raises the suicide risk for everyone: gun owner, spouse and children alike.”

It is perhaps time, then, to abandon the myopic view that those who would take their own life are not influenced by the availability of suicide methods, and accept that whether or not they survive is dictated primarily by how they choose to go about it. About 85 percent of suicide attempts with a firearm end in death (drug overdose, the most widely used method in suicide attempts, is fatal in less than 3 percent of cases.)

Research on suicide by the Harvard Youth Violence Prevention Center has also shown that one of the biggest myths is that suicides are typically the result of careful advance planning. While this may be the case — individuals who attempt suicide often succumb to a complex series of problems — empirical evidence suggests that they act impulsively in a moment of heightened vulnerability.

While the recent enactment of the Mental Health Parity Rule (which will guarantee that most insurance coverage offers access to mental health services on par with physical health coverage) brings hope to many whose lives would be vastly improved by access to mental health services, the collection and study of gun-related data has been severely undermined in the past two decades, and with it a crucial means of pushing forward sensible gun policies.

Despite President Obama’s reversal earlier this year of the NRA-sponsored amendment that barred the CDC from studying the causes and prevention of gun violence, researchers are still unable to answer many key questions such as the number and distribution of weapons across the country – slowing down prospects for life-saving policy reform. So much grief could be softened, if not avoided, by addressing the public health crisis of guns and suicide.

~ This guest blog post was written by Alice Cini is a social justice advocate and Social Work Fellow at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice’s From Punishment to Public Health Initiative. You can follow her on Twitter @CinikAl.


This post is part of the Monthly Social Justice Topic Series on From Punishment To Public Health (P2PH). If you have any questions, research that you would like to share related to P2PH or are interested in being interviewed for the series, please contact Morgane Richardson at with the subject line, “P2PH Series.”

Data on Gun Ownership: Hard to Find

Good data on gun ownership is hard to come by.

Anytime you hear claims about the prevalence of firearms from advocates on either side of the gun regulation debates, you should be skeptical of those statistical claims.

The fact is, there is no national registry of gun ownership.  A few states, such as California, do have registries. The lack of any national gun registry or any system for reporting when guns change ownership means that we can only estimate numbers of firearms owned and distributed.  Each firearm generates a paper trail which, theoretically, could be connected  to its date of manufacture or importation.  While recording manufacture or importation of a gun is required at the federal level, there is no central database of these reports, nor are they widely available so that they could be collected into a database.

Federal Firearms License(Federal Firearms License)

There are lots of problems with the gun-paper-trail.  The law does not require people to keep documentation of private sales (with some variation by state) and as a result the paper trail linking every firearm from manufacturer or importer to current holder can be broken.  Because every firearm can later be sold or gifted, statistics would have to track the chain of transfers from Federal Firearms Licensees (FFLs) to assure that the same gun is not counted multiple times as a “new” sale, or significant overcounts of the prevalence of firearms would result.

However, even if there are multiple undocumented private transfers, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and  Explosives – known as the ATF – can usually trace a gun to its last transfer from an FFL. This is widely referred to as trace data.
There is much misunderstanding about what’s legal in terms of gun sales and transfers. Here are two key facts:

  • it is illegal to sell guns across state lines.
  • it is illegal to sell a gun to anyone who is prohibited by law from owning a firearm.

There are obvious weaknesses in enforcing these prohibitions.  As just one example, many of these peer-to-peer transfers involve relatives and close friends. Even if a means of checking backgrounds existed, the information would probably be ignored. These difficulties in tracking gun transfers also highlight some of the problems with collecting and maintaining reliable data on gun ownership.

Gun Show guns(Image from PBS Newshour:
Is Gun Violence a Matter of Public Health?)

In short, knowing how many guns are available in the USA today, where they are located, and who own them is practically impossible under current law.  The best we can do in estimating data on gun ownership is to take data from individual states and cities that require every sale or gift of a gun to be recorded, and aggregate these datasets.  At best, these describe local conditions only, not national patterns.

However, statistics about the origin of each firearm before it is distributed are robust.  The ATF trace data can usually trace a gun to the last FFL that sold that particular gun. So researchers can look at the ATF data to get a rough idea of where the guns recovered by police (after use in crime) originated.  But the question of source, rather than subsequent ownership or illegal importation numbers or use of various firearms, is the only issue that can be addressed accurately with these data.

Nevertheless, ATF trace data can be analyzed to produce subsets of particular types of gun usage.  ATF trace data is primarily a collection, almost exclusively, of guns recovered from crimes. So the population is “crime guns” which is a distinct subset (rather than a simple sample) of the total number of firearms in the US.

The simplest example is: most guns owned in the USA are long guns (shotguns and rifles,) but most crime guns are handguns.  Using ATF trace data and narrowing the subset even further, only guns that have been actually physically recovered can be traced, so the statistical population becomes:  “Guns Used in Crime which Have Been Recovered by Law Enforcement.” However, even these are undercounted because each law enforcement agency has its own rules about when to request a trace from the ATF. Some agencies have a policy of ‘always request a trace,’ but it is doubtful that all crime guns are actually traced, even from these agencies. Others request a trace only if the firearm looks new, where the trace would help the investigation. If the weapon is a handgun from the 1960s, for example, tracing it to the last FFL transfer will probably be unhelpful for linking the gun to potential criminal suspects, because the gun has likely had multiple private owners over the years. Additionally, many crime guns are stolen from legal owners and transferred among prohibited owners, making traces even less likely to be helpful from a law enforcement perspective. So, in practice, ATF trace data can accurately depict only a subset of gun prevalence, which can be described as:  “the population of guns recovered in crimes for which a particular law enforcement agency requested a trace from the ATF.”  This limited subset of cases is not very helpful for estimating prevalence, distribution, or use of firearms in the USA.

Considering how limited the official reporting of guns sold and licensed in the USA can be, researchers must look to other sources of data about gun ownership and usage.  Statistics from public health sources can help.  Mortality data from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) is very useful because it includes almost all fatalities involving firearms, both suicides and homicides. However, it does not count gunshots in which wounds resulted, nor shots in which nobody is hit even if the gun is discharged. A large amount of data about misuse of firearms is therefore missing. CDC mortality data does not record any specifics about the type of firearm used, either.  In some cases, local medical examiners record detailed information about shootings (including approximate range of the gun to the decedent, type of gun, caliber,) but this data is not centralized or easily accessible. CDC data entails significant restrictions due to privacy concerns, but does often include a description of where the body the decedent was shot.

State and local police report data can also provide data. Any time the police respond to a firearm crime, someone will file a report. An incident may initially be filed by the police as a homicide but later determined by the medical examiner to be a suicide, or vice versa. Therefore we have to expect some differences in mortality data and police data. Additionally, there most people involved in altercations with firearms give conflicting accounts of what happened. Consequently, witness statements and officer determinations are more questionable in these cases than they are in others, to say nothing of the incidents in which witnesses refuse even to speak to the police, or conversely in which a gun discharge is reported but no corroborating evidence found.

Another police-related source of data is analysis of the firearms a given law enforcement agency actually confiscates.  But law enforcement agencies’ policies can differ. Policies for confiscations, policies for storage of the confiscated firearms, policies about granting researchers access, policies regarding recording and releasing statistics from these confiscations – all are idiosyncratic to the particular law enforcement agency. There is not a centralized data source covering firearms confiscated by police.  And, citing my own personal example in which I sought information about what kinds of guns and how many guns (as opposed to all weapons) have been confiscated in New York under that city’s aggressive stop-and-frisk policy, such information is not made available to the public.

When statistics describing particular phenomena are not widely available or are likely to be inaccurate, researchers often fall back on surveys in which people are asked how often they engage in particular behaviors (such as owning a firearm, or using it, and for what.)  The General Social Survey (GSS) is the most frequently used data sources to study firearms because it is one of the few nationally representative samples in which subjects are asked about firearm ownership. Of course, bias is possible here, too. Some have made convincing arguments that the GSS undercounts firearm ownership because many gun owners are suspicious of authorities asking about their guns, and that there are gendered and regional differences in likelihood of being willing to report a firearm in the house.  Still, it remains valuable resource for collecting gun ownership data.

gun culture(Image source)

Survey and interview data in general about firearms must be treated with care. Firearms are powerful symbols with multiple – and conflicting – meanings. As a result, survey answers about firearms are likely to be less than accurate.

Phillip Cook has produced a formula for estimation, using CDC and police data about homicide and suicide, to estimate use of guns. For now, Cook’s Index is the closest thing scholars studying firearms have agreed is the best measure – though scarcely a perfect one — for estimating firearm use in causing human deaths, though not the prevalence of gun ownership or usage generally.   His formula utilizes the overall numbers of homicide and suicides and determines the percentage of each committed with a firearm.  Local telephone surveys asking people about firearm ownership confirm that Cook’s Index correlates closely with firearm availability. It is expected that there are variations cross-nationally with this estimate, and over time.

Right now, the it is impossible to say with any precision how many guns are currently in use of guns in the US.  By piecing together data from a variety of law enforcement, federal statistics about gun origins, and public health sources, a rough picture can emerge.  Improving these databases is the next goal for researchers.

~ This guest blog was written by Candace McCoy Professor, John Jay College and The Graduate Center, CUNY.


Women in Prison: Twice as Likely to Have History of Abuse

The rate of women who are incarcerated, whether in prison or jail, is increasing. According to the ACLU, more than 200,000 women are currently in jail or prison, and another 1 million are under the control of the probation and parole system.

women in prison(Image source)

While many of the demographics for women in prison parallel those of men – that is, they are disproportionately black and poor – a closer look reveals another story.  Women bring a gendered life experience with them to incarceration.  And, being gendered ‘woman’ in this society often means a series of difficult life circumstances and hardships, like physical or sexual abuse in childhood or as an adult.  Incarceration places the additional burdens of isolation, humiliation, and systemic marginalization to these gendered life experiences.

It is precisely because of their gendered life experiences prior to incarceration that women need gender-based interventions in order to re-enter their communities and rejoin their families.

National Profile of Women Offenders
A profile based on national data ( “Gender-Responsive Strategies”) for women offenders reveals the following characteristics:

  • Disproportionately women of color.
  • In their early to mid-30s.
  • Most likely to have been convicted of a drug-related offense.
  • From fragmented families that include other family members who also have been involved with the criminal justice system.
  • Survivors of physical and/or sexual abuse as children and adults.
  • Individuals with significant substance abuse problems.
  • Individuals with multiple physical and mental health problems.
  • Unmarried mothers of minor children.
  • Individuals with a high school or general equivalency diploma (GED) but limited vocational training and sporadic work histories.

One in three
One can hardly talk (intelligently) about women in prison without talking about childhood trauma and physical and sexual abuse.

Earlier this year, the Correctional Association of New York – a 170-year-old advocacy organization that leads efforts to protect and advance the rights of incarcerated women and their families – published the following facts about women and the criminal justice system:

  • At least one in three girls in the United States is sexually abused by the time they reach the age of 18.
  • Women in prison are twice as likely as women in the general public to report childhood histories of physical or sexual abuse.
  • Nationally, more than 37% of women in state prisons have been raped before incarceration.
  • 90% of women incarcerated at Bedford Hills reported suffering physical or sexual violence in their lifetimes.
  • 82% of women at Bedford Hills reported having a childhood history of severe physical and/or sexual abuse.

Yet another casualty of the war on drugs, most women are behind bars because of non-violent drug-related offenses. Much of their substance abuse is generally understood as “self-medication”, a device to help them cope with the aftershocks of traumatic childhood experiences – such as, in many cases, parental incarceration. In addition, the flood of crack cocaine that hit urban areas in the 1980s increased women’s experience of another kind of sexual trauma, street-level prostitution – a mainstay survival strategy for women addicts along with low-level drug dealing and petty property crimes.

free marissa signs(Image source)

The recent case of Marissa Alexander, sentenced to 20 years in a Florida prison for firing warning shots into the ceiling in an attempt to fend off her abusive husband, brought the national spotlight to the fate of many women who dare defend themselves and their children from their abusers.  Marissa’s appeal was successful and she has been granted a new trial – although she has been incarcerated since 2010. The Correctional Association has been spearheading the campaign to pass the Domestic Violence Survivors Justice Act, which would change New York State laws that require long, harsh sentences for survivors who protect themselves from an abuser’s violence.

Impact of Incarceration on Children, Families
Attorney General Eric Holder’s recent declaration that “too many Americans go to too many prisons for far too long, and for no truly good law enforcement reason” has drawn public attention to the issue of mass incarceration.  One area that still needs even greater attention is the impact that incarceration has on children and families.

Screen Shot 2013-12-03 at 1.14.53 PMClick image to enlarge.

(Sources: Christopher Wildeman, “Parental Imprisonment, the Prison Boom, and the Concentration of Childhood Disadvantage,” Demography, May, 2009;  and The New York Times, July 4, 2009)

Over 2.3 million children in the United States currently have a parent who is incarcerated in the jail or prison system and over 10 million children have experienced parental incarceration in their lifetime.  The social and health risks and outcomes that parental incarceration has on children include increased stress, family disruption, feelings of abandonment, traumatic separation, loneliness, stigma, unstable childcare arrangements, strained parenting, reduced care giving abilities upon reunification, and home, school, and neighborhood moves.

Visitation with children in prison is not an option for most mothers in prison for the duration of their time behind bars and, on average, the children of incarcerated mothers will live with at least two different caregivers during the period of their incarceration.  More than half will experience separation from their siblings.

Upon release from incarceration, reuniting with the incarcerated parent with his or her children is often desirable; however, the actual impact of the reunification process on children and families merits further investigation.  Reunions often causes stress to both parent and children because for better or for worse it constitutes a disruption of the status quo, and as such demands that both adults and children adapt to new household dynamics, especially if children had previously been placed in foster care. Bonds broken by incarceration are not easily mended, and children may experience difficulty in forming meaningful attachments for the rest of their lives.

Generally lacking adequate job skills, most women have trouble supporting a family upon their release from prison, and the communities to which they return are unprepared to receive them. And after serving their time, a woman’s criminal record may bar them, through law or practice, from accessing vital resources, such as employment; public housing; welfare benefits; food stamps; financial assistance for education. These post-conviction penalties constitute an ongoing and self-perpetuating additional layer of punishment that endures far beyond their prison sentence.

Designing programs for impact
According to the Women’s Prison Association, programs aimed at supporting women returning from prison must take account of the family responsibilities women bear.  Programs should be designed with the understanding that women and their families are often burdened with conflicting and inflexible requirements of multiple agencies.  Criminal justice, welfare and child welfare agencies may set competing or conflicting goals and conditions for women, while limiting or denying access to essential services needed to stabilize and maintain the family unit.

Family reunion(Image credit: Michael Kirby for The New York Times)

Family-focused Alternative to Incarceration (ATI) programs such as Drew House in Brooklyn, NY, have been successful at providing selected women charged with felonies and their children with the tools and the chance to strengthen these families without compromising public safety. However, the need to collect and coherently use women-centered data when addressing incarcerated women remains crucial for the relevance and success of any intervention.

~This post was co-authored by Alice Cini and Stephanie Hubbard.  Alice Cini is a social justice advocate and Social Work Fellow at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice’s From Punishment to Public Health Initiative. You can follow her on Twitter @CinikAl. Stephanie Hubbard is a public health professional and advocate for youth and humans rights at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health.


This post is part of the Monthly Social Justice Topic Series on From Punishment To Public Health (P2PH). If you have any questions, research that you would like to share related to P2PH or are interested in being interviewed for the series, please contact Morgane Richardson at with the subject line, “P2PH Series.”