Author Archives: Heidi Knoblauch

The Importance of Audio and Podcasts

The first thing I learned about podcasting was that it is powerful medium. Podcasting is powerful not only because it has the ability to relate complex arguments into digestible bits of information, but also because it can transform those arguments into relatable stories. Rather than shoving statistics at an audience, podcasts can transform statistics about subjects (i.e. the number of people arrested in 2012 in the U.S. on nonviolent drug charges was 1.55 million) into stories about real people who felt the impact of those statistics. The unique ability of audio to highlight the experience of making knowledge can also connect listeners to scholarship in a way that books often fail to do. Podcasts can allow academics to infuse themselves into the arguments they make rather than downplay their connection to their scholarship.

Podcasts – meaning audio uploaded to iTunes – are just one way to use audio to connect with a wider audience. There are many other platforms including WordPress, SoundCloud, and MixCloud that allow you to share audio. Often, these non-iTunes venues allow for a stronger engagement with your audience because they allow users to post comments on audio files. And, depending on your resources, posting at all four of these venues can give you the most engagement.

Making a good podcast requires planning. A podcast posted on iTunes should have a consistent length, release time, and theme to be successful. In other words, if you want a create a weekly interview-based topically connected 15 minute podcast series, iTunes is probably the most powerful platform to gain a strong following. On the other hand, if you want to post interviews sporadically and have audio that varies in length and topic then something like SoundCloud or your own personal WordPress site would probably gain more traction.

Not all good audio projects have to be formatted like a podcast. Projects can vary in length and subject but use the same intro and outro to make the audio files cohesive. For example, the JustPublics@365 Podcast Series uses the same music intro and outro for every episode. We also use that slice of audio for our shorter audio projects that we post exclusively to SoundCloud.

Collecting audio does not have to be expensive, but it can be. Like most media projects, you can make podcasts as expensive or inexpensive as you want. SoundCloud has the hefty price tag of $121.50 per year to upload an unlimited number of tracks. Using services like BuzzSprout, which offer podcast hosting can cost between $12 and $24 a month. You can upload audio to a server and link that file in a post in your WordPress site. Audio files take up a large amount of room so, often, you will have to pay for some type of server space.

You can be scrappy with equipment. Smartphones have the ability to record surprisingly excellent audio. iPhone apps like Voice Recorder HD ($1.99) or the built in Voice Memos can give you high quality audio. If you want to have higher quality audio you can purchase a number of different microphones that plug directly into your computer (I like the Apogee Electronics MiC Studio Quality USB Microphone) or that plug right into your iPhone or Android (I like the Rode SmartLav or the iRig MIC Cast).

Editing can make all the difference. You can use a number of different programs to edit your audio. GarageBand is one of the easier ways to learn to edit your audio. You can record directly into GarageBand or import audio from prerecorded files. It is free to Mac users so it is a great option for beginners. Audacity is free, open source, cross-platform software for recording and editing sounds that is compatible with PCs and Macs. It is slightly more clunky than GarageBand, but is an equally effective way to edit audio.

Length is up for debate. There are ongoing debates about how long a podcast should be. Some say 3 minutes, some say 30 minutes. I say, the most important thing is to pick a length and stick to it. If your audience is engaging with 30-minutes of content, there is no reason to switch to a 3 minute format. On the other hand, if you are making 30-minute podcasts and no one is engaging with them, it may be time to rethink your strategy.

There are many different types of podcasts. One powerful way to weave stories for listeners is through audio interviews. The podcasts and audio that I have produced for JustPublics@365 have mostly consisted of these. I think interviews are most effective when combined with “on the ground” audio, but they can also be powerful in and of themselves.

When JustPublics@365 interviewed people affected by the East Harlem Building Collapse the interviews were edited to have the same intro and outro for every interview in addition to the same music from the JustPublics@365 Series.

Community Conversations – East Harlem Resident Sam Goudif

This method of interviewing consisted of asking the interviewee a series of questions to get them primed for the interview and then recording their uninterrupted story from start to finish. When editing these interviews, I inserted myself only in the beginning and end in order to give context to the story.

When creating the JustPublics@365 Podcast Series, I took a different approach and included my questions in the produced audio. This interview style podcast involved in-depth research and thought out questions, which I shared with the interviewee before the interview. These podcasts are structured in a way that allows for replicability and their format is designed for a structured ongoing series.

Podcast Episode 1 – Michael Fabricant and Michelle Fine

The most important thing is consistency. However you decide to structure your podcast, you should be consistent and stick to your strategy!

Heidi Knoblauch (@heidiknoblauch) is a Ph.D. Candidate in the History of Medicine at Yale University and JustPublics@365’s program coordinator.

“Fighting Misinformation”: Comments on Drug Policy from the “Marijuana and Drug Policy Reform in New York” Symposium

On May 1st and 2nd, The Drug Policy Alliance (DPA) and The New York Academy of Medicine (NYAM)  hosted a symposium titled “Marijuana and Drug Policy Reform in New York: 70 Years After The LaGuardia Committee Report,” to look at the current state of drug policy. The goal of the conference was to foster a rich discussion of contemporary drug policy reform efforts nationally and in New York.

Over the next two days, JustPublics@365 will be posting some audio clips from the conference. Today’s post includes audio from City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, Professor Richard Bonnie from the University of Virginia, Professor Samuel Roberts from Columbia University, and Deborah Small from Break the Chains.

“Elected officials need to be equipped with research and policy recommendations,” declared New York City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito at the start of a day long discussion on marijuana and drug policy reform in New York. She focused on ways to combat “misinformation campaigns based on myth not science” to make sure that drug policies are fair and just. Most arrests for marijuana are a corruption of the original intention of the law.

For her entire comments you can listen here:

Melissa Mark-Viverito on Drug Policy

Richard Bonnie then opened up the conversation with comments on the Shafer Commission (aka National Commission on Marihuana and Drug Abuse). He said that we have “over relied on prohibition and criminalization rather than using other tools to meet our objectives.” By looking at alcohol probation we can look at the regulatory practices that have already been put in place, he said.  There was a “tremendous success” in discussions of decriminalization during the Shafer Commission and between 1973 and 1977 twelve states decriminalized marijuana.

You can listen to his full comments here:

Richard Bonnie on Drug Policy

Following Richard Bonnie’s comments, Paul Theerman, from The New York Academy of Medicine led a panel discussion on “Drug Wars Past & Present.” Theerman opened the panel by refocusing the conversation on the “New York situation.”

The first speaker, Samuel Roberts from Columbia University, said that “as a historian of drug policy this is a very interesting moment in which we find ourselves.” He told the room that it was the role of the historian to remind people of their past and that there were some things we should think about as we talk about current issues in drug policy. There are many ways of thinking about drug policy and Roberts urged the room not to focus too heavily on medicalization because, like criminalization, there are problems with over medicalizing.

You can listen to his full comments here:

Samuel Roberts on Drug Policy

Deborah Small, J.D., Executive Director, Break the Chains, started by saying that it makes no sense to say we need more research to determine drug policy. The whole conversation around the need to protect children from drugs does not currently apply to other policies, like gun control and environmental hazards are much more dangerous than marijuana, she said. “The government is not protecting us from the right things,” she concluded. 

You can listen to her full comments here:

Deborah Small – Breaking the Chains on Drug Policy

GIDEON’S ARMY Receives Prestigious Ridenhour Documentary Film Prize

This week, on the anniversary of Gideon v. Wainwright, The Ridenhour Prizes announced that GIDEON’S ARMY, directed and produced by Dawn Porter, will receive the 2014 Documentary Film Prize.

The Ridenhour Prizes recognize and encourage those who persevere in acts of truth-­telling that protect the public interest, promote social justice, or illuminate a more just vision of society.

Gideon v. Wainwright (1963) is the landmark Supreme Court decision that unanimously ruled that states are required to provide counsel in criminal cases to represent defendants unable to afford to pay for their own attorneys. GIDEON’S ARMY follows three young public defenders in the Deep South — Travis Williams, Brandy Alexander, and June Hardwick — as they struggle with staggering caseloads, long hours and low pay, trying to balance their commitment to public service with a criminal justice system strained to the breaking point. Here’s the trailer (:45):

In reflecting upon its decision, the awards committee said, “We are thrilled to have selected Gideon’s Army which celebrates the legion of idealistic young public defenders who are fighting for equal justice for the disenfranchised within our broken and biased legal system, while struggling to stay one step ahead of poverty themselves.”


(One of the attorneys featured in the film, Brandy, with a client.
Image source.)

GIDEON’S ARMY highlights the work of public defenders while also exposing the subtle and not so subtle ways in which the justice system is complicit in the mismanagement of indigent defense. Rather than taking their chances with a court appointed lawyer — who may have hundreds of other cases — increasing numbers of defendants agree to plea deals or sentences outside of a trial. As a result, between 90 to 95 percent of defendants plead guilty and never receive the right to counsel as guaranteed by the sixth amendment to the Constitution. This disconnect between the promise of Gideon v. Wainwright and the reality of the law’s implementation has clearly contributed to prison over-crowding, violence, and a reduced chance of rehabilitation.

study of the 100 most populous counties in the United States found that 82 percent of indigent clients were handled by public defenders. In the most recent year that numbers are available, a mere 964 public defender offices nationwide had to handle nearly 6 million indigent defense cases.

“I am honored and so very grateful to receive the Ridenhour Documentary Film Prize,” said director Dawn Porter. “The award will help amplify the critical issues Gideon’s Army exposes, and further share the harrowing stories of America’s overworked public defenders with audiences across the world. Ron Ridenhour was a man committed to truth-telling and correcting injustice. My hope is to advance these same ideals, by using Gideon’s Army to educate audiences, spark civic debate, and ultimately advance constructive solutions to the problems facing America’s criminal justice system. On behalf of the 15,000 public defenders and their clients, and with special thanks to the wonderful lawyers of Gideon’s Promise who are the inspiration and heart of the film, I thank the Ridenhour Award Committee.”

We here at JustPublics@365, congratulate Dawn Porter on this prestigious award. We’re also pleased to have this opportunity to share our recent interview with her.


Listen to Dawn Porter on Gideon’s Army

GIDEON’S ARMY will be awarded the 2014 Ridenhour Documentary Film Prize on Wednesday, April 30th, from 12pm to 2pm at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C. This event is open to press.



Special Interview with Documentary Filmmaker Dawn Porter

Dawn Porter is a lawyer turned documentary film maker whose film, Gideon’s Army, follows three public defenders in the Deep South. Her film chronicles the lives of these public defenders and emphasizes the personal stories of their clients to show the realities of, and inequalities in, the criminal justice system. In this interview we talk about how she constructed the film and what impact she hopes it will have.


Listen to Dawn Porter on Gideon’s Army

Heidi Knoblauch: The first question I have is could you share a little bit about yourself, your work on “Gideon’s Army” and how you think of your work as a documentary filmmaker, as a form of activism, art, or both? A more targeted question would be: when did you decide to become a documentary filmmaker?

Dawn Porter:  I actually decided I wanted to make a documentary film, which I think is different than deciding I wanted to be a filmmaker. I was working for A&E Television, and I just felt like I wasn’t seeing a lot of stories about minorities or stories that I cared about. There were things I was interested in that I thought other people would be interested in too, and I thought, “You know, I think I could do this.”

When I met Jonathan Rapping and the public defenders I thought, “This is a great story that I have access to, but also that I think I understand as a lawyer.” That’s kind of how it started. I really started out thinking I wanted to make a film. I wasn’t thinking about a whole career shift at first.

Heidi Knoblauch: I know that the film is based on the 1963 Gideon v. Wainwright decision, why did you choose to focus on that? What led you to focus on the public defenders?

Dawn Porter: I think that, like most people, I didn’t really understand what public defenders do, how critical they are to our system of democracy. I think that most important, I didn’t understand at all why anybody would do their job. It’s just such a tough job, such little pay and long hours. I couldn’t really… I just was really curious, why would anybody want to defend people who are accused of terrible things?

I was really just curious about them. I also felt, once I got to know them, I felt like what they do is so misunderstood and so misrepresented. I thought that doing a film could add to the public conversation about what they do and show people why they do it, but also why it’s so important and why we should all care about it.

Heidi Knoblauch: That leads into another question that I had, which is who are your target audiences?

Dawn Porter: I think it’s really everybody. I think it’s for the general public, which I put myself in. It’s did you know that 80% of people accused of crimes are represented by public defenders, which leads to the follow-up, that means 80% of people who are being arrested in this country are, if not at poverty level, are very low-income. I think that that’s a striking statistic.

Then I think for public defenders it was to encourage them to explain to people why they do what they do and why it’s important. I think a lot of times public defenders get so much negative publicity that they tend to kind up give up on the general public and not explain what they do, and I think people are open to it if they have those dialogues. For them it was be proud of what you do, you’re so important to our system.

Heidi Knoblauch: Cara Mertes, who leads JustFilms at the Ford Foundation, has said “thinking about impact will make your film better.” Did you think about the impact you wanted this film to have before you made it? How did that shape the film?

Dawn Porter: I think, like a lot of people, I thought about it a little bit abstractly. When you’re making a film your first goal is to make a good film, but along the way I think I realized that it could be a really important part of a conversation that’s happening in this country about criminal justice and criminal justice reform.

I think what Cara says is absolutely right. We should be thinking all along the way for opportunities to spread the message and also who our audiences are, who are allies might be, who might be the microphones for our film, who might use it to make social change.

I think I came to it a little bit later than she was talking about, but along the way that was a really critical part of what we were doing, engaging the public defenders, the ACLU, other social justice, criminal justice outfits. They’ve been fantastic in hosting screenings and publicizing the film and that, I think, has led to a really successful rollout, culminating on HBO.

Heidi Knoblauch: What do you think the film says about the criminal justice system in our country?

Dawn Porter: I think it says that there’s a whole class of people who are invisible and that we have a criminal justice system that works very differently if you’re poor than if you’re wealthy. Since most of the people being brought into it are poor, I think we should be alarmed and horrified by what passes for justice. I think the young people who are featured, who are the lawyers in the film … The other thing I think it says is, “Those are patriots. Those are people who love our Constitution, love our country. They are doing the unpopular thing, but they are also the last protection for people accused of serious crimes.”

There’s almost nothing more serious that you can do than to lock somebody up and strip them of their rights. To make sure that we do that properly… And that’s why we started this film with Travis saying, “If you’re going to take my liberty, you’ve got to do it right.” It’s just one of the most important things we can do. We see, across the world, people are fighting for the ability to have fair trials and free speech. That’s what public defenders do. They’re representing people so that they have fair process.

Heidi Knoblauch: You mentioned that scene with Travis Williams, and I was really blown away by that scene. Why did you decide to focus on a few cases that the public defenders were doing rather than emphasize these huge caseloads, 125 cases or something like that, for each of them.

Dawn Porter: I think that the numbers start to … we get immune to the numbers. When you say, “Twelve million people arrested every year, seven million people in the criminal justice system, two million people in prison,” people get immune to what that really means. What I wanted to do is say, “That’s the backdrop. See how much effort it takes for one of those? Now do the math. Now think about if he has to do this, times 160, what could that possibly be like?”

I think that people, when you slow down and let them understand all that goes into being a good lawyer, I think that it allows them to enter his world and enter his mindset in a way that … If you just put up a big number, it gets a gasp but it doesn’t bring you into his world. If you see actual people … Prisoners become numbers. People accused become numbers and not real people.

What I wanted to show is every single person they’re representing has a family, has a story. If he does his job right he’s supposed to get to know that, but how can he possibly do it with those numbers? I wanted to focus on individual people and not have people be numbers.

Heidi Knoblauch: A major focus of JustPublics@365 is bringing together academics, activists and media makers in ways that promote social justice, civic engagement and greater democracy, and often academics appear as talking heads in documentary films. How can academics push the boundaries and move beyond the role of the talking head?

Dawn Porter: I think that they should really think about what drew them to their work, what made them passionate about their topic in the first place. Don’t hesitate to tell those personal stories if you want to be more than a talking head. We can look up facts. We can’t look up personal stories and experience, and that’s what a person who studies or writes or thinks about really important topics can bring to an interview. That personal experience. Why does this matter? Why do you know it matters? Help us explain to everybody else what you see. I think that’s an incredibly important role for an academic.

Heidi Knoblauch: What are some key projects that would give documentary filmmakers, activists, and academics opportunities to work together? In other words, not necessarily working on documentaries about the Civil Rights Movement, but what are the points of intersection for these three sometimes indistinct groups of people?

Dawn Porter: We all go through a period of research where we’re looking for characters. We’re looking for people to help explain a story. If someone has written extensively about a topic, often you know the people that have really good stories. At the research stage, there’s a great opportunity for collaboration. I think there’s also … For writing proposals, we often have to have experts review the proposals.

That’s a really good collaboration, is finding someone who will read over your submission to the NEH, or National Endowment for the Humanities. It’s a really critical … Foundations and other funders, they want to know that you’re tapped into the people who are thinking exclusively about the topic that you’re working on. At the research and writing proposal stage, there’s a great opportunity to work together with people who are interested in being storytellers.

Heidi Knoblauch: Thank you so much for this great interview. It was wonderful.


Special Interview with Rebecca Tiger



Rebecca Tiger is an Assistant Professor of Sociology at Middlebury College. Her first book, Judging Addicts: Drug Courts and Coercion in the Justice System, examines the re-emergence of rehabilitation in the criminal justice system by focusing on the medicalized theories of addiction that advocates of drug courts use to bolster criminal justice oversight of defendants.


Can you share a bit about how your research speaks to the issues of criminalization of public health?

I’ve got a number of research projects going on but one that I completed, it’s my book Judging Addicts, I look at the rise of coerced drug treatment in the criminal justice system. Really, it’s reemergence, because I think it’s incorrect to say that it wasn’t there before. I became interested in both this statistic that I found that the majority … well, the number one source of referral or the largest source of referral to publically funded drug treatment is the criminal justice system. The majority of people who are there are there under some kind of coerced order. Then I became interested in drug courts, which are these sort of formalized mechanisms where people are sentenced to drug treatment instead of prison, although the Drug Policy Alliance and other places have shown that actually it’s not necessarily drug treatment or prison, sometimes it could be nothing or drug court, so it’s not necessarily an alternative to incarceration. Anyway, I became interested in how theories of addiction, recovery, therapy get grafted onto a system of punishment leading to what I refer to in my book as either “force is the best medicine” … that’s a quote from someone I interviewed … or other people said “enlightened coercion.” So it was this kind of merger of both thinking of addiction as a disease but also thinking of drug use as a crime. So, to answer the question, in some ways what these courts are doing is drawing on prevailing theories of addiction as some kind of disease, as not solely the enactment of badness. What they’re doing is that they’re using the criminal justice system to leverage recovery. Their argument is that actually the criminal justice system is a better place to oversee treatment because of the swift and certain sanctions that the criminal justice system can met out, which is namely flash incarceration or weekends in jail or other sorts of punishments that voluntary treatment programs can’t enact. In some ways what I found in my work is this adoption of a sort of public health type framework and understanding of addiction as a widespread public problem, but then understanding punishment as an important vehicle for curing it.


What are some of the current projects you are working on? 

I’m now doing a project, I’m starting a project in rural Vermont where I live. Rural Vermont has, and the media has been playing up what they’re calling an opiate epidemic. That’s their language, not mine. Part of my work is I do a syringe outreach. We do a mobile syringe exchange. I am exchanging syringes with people who have had extensive … many of them … extensive interactions with the criminal justice system. We actually have to exchange syringes very quickly in parking lots. They’re concerned they’re going to be arrested. We’re concerned that the police are going to stop us even though we’re legally allowed to do what we’re doing.

How does criminalization and mass incarceration affect the lives of people in your research?

It’s hovering over everything. So, to get back to thinking of public health and criminalization, the people that I am exchanging syringes with are oftentimes under supervision of the court through a drug court, or they’re probation parole. But they’re also under intense surveillance of drug treatment program. Many of the people I exchange syringes with are actually using syringes to inject medicine that they obtained legally as treatment for their heroin addiction, right? If they’re getting Suboxone, they prefer to inject it. What’s really happening is I would say that there’s a much broader addiction control apparatus that they’re having to skirt around that’s both the treatment, comes from the treatment side, so that the treatment program finds out that they’re using syringes to administer their drugs they could be kicked out of the treatment program, which would have pretty severe consequences from them. But then they’re also skirting this other side, so some of the people if they have, for instance, Suboxone or buprenorphine but they’ve obtained it illegally, then they’ve got that end. I think that it’s really, in the realm of addiction, it’s very broad. That’s where this health and punitiveness can come together in ways that are very intense for people who are really just trying to sort of make it by.

What are your thoughts on policy approaches that draw from public health rather than criminal justice? Are there any examples of policy approaches that draw from public health rather than criminal justice? If so, do you think these are better or just reproduce the same systems of inequality?

Yeah, those are complicated questions, but I can try to answer. I guess the first question I would sort of ask is what does it mean to think in terms of public health? I’m not sure I know exactly what that means. Public health has had a sort of interesting history, but a lot of people who work in public health … and I worked in it for years … they’re not necessarily opposed to punishment or they’re not necessarily opposed to criminalization. Oftentimes it could be working within those same systems, although it’s not necessarily the case.

What I prefer to think about or tend to think about, especially in the realm of drugs and addiction … and that’s the field that I think I know the most about … is really, in some ways, it’s kind of the harm reduction approach, which is meeting people where they are, providing whatever care and services they might need or might say they need in a nonjudgmental fashion.

To that extent, there aren’t a lot of examples of that, but there are some. I think, for example, syringe exchange, it’s an example of an approach that says okay, you need access to clean syringes. Mostly it’s because … For instance in the town I live in, even though in Vermont certain pharmacies are legally allowed to sell syringes over-the-counter without a prescription, only one pharmacy in my town will do that and they make it extremely expensive, so that syringe exchange becomes necessary for people to use drugs safely. We don’t, the exchanging syringes isn’t tied to promises that people will get into drug treatment. It’s not about that. It’s about giving clean syringes because the state won’t do that. I think something like syringe exchange is an example.

Again, in the realm of drug policy, I think what’s happened in Portugal’s a really good example. Decriminalizing possession of all drugs is another example. I think that any efforts that … I guess I’ll just be straightforward. I’m sort of in support of any efforts that don’t involve the system of punishment at all. What I’ve found in my work, and especially in my book where I have a kind of pretty extensive historical discussion, is that any time … and this isn’t my original idea … but any time you have treatment and punishment coming together, or you have any form of health coming together with punishment, the more dominant system, the system of punishment and the kind of overtaking whatever therapeutic benefit there might have been in a voluntary program.

For me, syringe exchange, I would say that that’s an example of public health. The hope is that it allows people to use drugs safely. I think decriminalization or legalization is in some ways a form of public health because we could also look at the health consequences of incarceration and the psychological and physical toll that prolonged involvement with the criminal justice system has as something that is not productive of health.

I guess when I think of public health I tend to think in the big what are the institutional and structural factors that promote health and what are institutional and structural factors that promote ill-health? Obviously punishment does not tend to promote health.

I think this question of does public health or do these initiatives reproduce inequalities is a really interesting one. I’ve read some interesting critiques of syringe exchange, especially in urban areas, as efforts to clear out downtowns of their injection drug users so middle to upper class white folks can move in and have this nice residential experience without junkies on the street. I think that’s a really valid and interesting critique of it.

To the extent that if these initiatives are instituted in a context where the broader inequalities aren’t examined, then sure, I think they could reproduce them pretty easily.


A major focus of the JustPublics@365 project is bringing together academics, activists and journalist in ways that promote social justice civic engagement in greater democracy. What sort of ‘lessons learned’ do you have from your experience with syringe exchange about academics entering a terrain more frequently trod by activists and journalists? 

I participated in a number of things with JustPublics. I would say that there are smaller transformations that happen. I’m much more active on Twitter. I engage in public debates about things. But I think there was a sort of overall shift in thinking about what role academics can or should play in the issues that we’re interested in primarily around inequality and a lot of it having to do with punishment.

I feel like I’ve in some ways being involved with JustPublics has given me more confidence to cross that line between is this academic or is this policy, is it too applied and not worry about that so much. I think sometimes those divisions get built up partly for kind of professional hierarchical reasons within academia. Where do I need to publish to be taken seriously in the academic side?

I think it also gets built up because of these divisions in how to communicate. I actually think … I participated in a workshop on how to write editorials. I haven’t gotten anything published in editorial from that, but that really changed the way I think about a lot of things and it really sort of pushed my thinking about how to be succinct, how to link up with journalists, how to think about what policymakers are doing, how to understand their limitations while also learning a little bit how to push against their limitation.

I think broadly it’s really … I think something like JustPublics is really important for getting people to understand that there’s lots of different ways to be active with their research, and that that sort of reticence about crossing over … that I’m leaving the academic side and moving to something else isn’t … that there’s a lot more opportunities in that than there are possibilities of failure. It was also a good time for me because I had the book out so I had some sort of freedom. My involvement with JustPublics has happened when I’ve had a little freedom to make myself over in a way, I guess.


You are simultaneously doing important scholarly research and social justice work that has a real world impact. How to you see these two projects interacting with each other?

Before going to graduate school, I had worked in public policy and public health for years. I went back to graduate school when I was 32. I had had this whole sort of different life. That, for me … and graduate school was this like wonderful treat to be able to sit and read Foucault and all this stuff about punishment. It was really great. It did sort of affect how I think about things.

I guess I would say … for instance, the project that I started working on, I wasn’t working on this … six months ago I didn’t understand myself as working on a project looking at how the drug problem in rural New England is being constructed. I was, and still am, working on a book called Rock Bottom, which is about the media and visual culture of addiction, which looks at celebrity, looks at elite media. I’ve published articles on media coverage of performance enhancing drugs, whiteness, Lindsay Lohan, celebrity addiction.

I moved to this town. It’s just a poor, rural town in Vermont. It’s often denigrated by people in Vermont, regularly denigrated by my colleagues. Everywhere I went people said … made some reference to the drug problem. I became fascinated with how a town that’s economically struggling uses the drug problem as the sort of reason for its struggles.

I became involved in the syringe exchange really sort of accidentally. I went into the pharmacy. I was looking for something from the pharmacist and the pharmacist had a big sign up that said “We will no longer sell syringes without a prescription.” I said, “What’s the status of syringes in the state?” The pharmacist said, “We can, but we’re not going to anymore.” I said, “Why?” She said, “Because people use them to inject drugs.” I said, “Isn’t that good that they get their syringes?” She said no, that they’re liars, that sometimes they inject in the parking lot.

I actually got in an argument with the woman. I said, “I see you as community health professional. Don’t you have a stake in dealing with this?” She said, “No. Our hope is that these people leave and go somewhere else. That they just leave Rutland” … which is where I live.

It was a sort of interesting moment for me. I ended up calling someone at the state. They put me in touch with this woman who drives three hours who works for an organization called Vermont Cares. She drives three hours twice a month to come here and do syringe exchange, so now I work with her doing the mobile syringe exchange. The mobile syringe exchange was for me a sort of way of making some contribution to this drug problem that countered the criminalization, which is one of the dominant ways it’s dealt with in my town; not in the state, but in this particular town.

It’s only actually fairly recently that I’ve started see, oh wait, there’s something here. I’m in the middle of this, I’m in the center of this thing that’s happening. The Governor just made a big speech about the drug epidemic. The New York Times picked up on it and is now saying that Vermont has an opiate epidemic. The New York Times has been talking about the drug epidemic. All that and quotes in New England. All of a sudden I’m in the center of the thing and I’m seeing it from all these different perspectives because I’m also meeting with people at the local drug court and I’m sort of observing there, so I’m watching it from different angles.

I think the thing is about getting involved in things like syringe exchange is at some point you can do this because it doesn’t … maybe what will happen instead of it being because of your research, maybe you’ll do it because your conscience kind of pulls you there, and then you’ll see, oh wait, there is something here that’s maybe related to some of the ideas that have circulated in my other projects. That’s the thing too. For me, a lot of my work has to do broadly with how sort of “deviance” gets defined and what happens to a deviant person once they’re made. That’s a long historical process and that also touches in so many different areas so that, for me, I bounce around because that’s the bigger question I have. Here where I live, I see what happens to these people who have been really denigrated simply because they’re committed users of opiates. I really felt like to live here and to be a part of this community I wanted to get to know that more. The syringe exchange was the way in.

Special Interview with Ernie Drucker

JustPublics@365 Ernie Drucker
Ernest Drucker is an epidemiologist at Columbia’s Mailman School of Public Health, a Scholar in Residence at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, and author of the 2011 book, A Plague of Prisons: The Epidemiology of Mass Incarceration in America. He is licensed as a Clinical Psychologist in NY State and conducts research in AIDS, drug policy, and prisons and is active in public health and human rights efforts in the US and abroad.



Can you share a little bit about how your research speaks to the issues of criminalization of public health?

Well, I’m an epidemiologist. It’s principally looking at the numbers independent of the individual experience. They tell a story in their own right basically because of how large they are, how big the disparities are between by race and ethnicity and how much of it is related to drugs.

How does criminalization and mass incarceration affected the lives of people in your research?

Well, it’s the fact that you’ve programmed a level of involvement in the criminal justice system into the lives of such a large portion especially the poor black male community of the United States that it’s almost like in a water supply and the nutriments that they get in the opposite direction of course.

The facts that are important here are that about 40% of young black men at this point can expect to be, if rates continued at the same rate, can expect to be in prison basically some time in their lifetime. The current figure is over 30%, about 35% but it’s going up. Even though the prison rates are going down, the probability of any individual being involved in this is so great.

The experience of Stop-and-Frisk in New York is a good example of the way the system reaches as it were and involves people in experiences that are based on an assumption that they’re involved in criminal activity reaching a peak of 700,000 stops-and-frisks in a year and a half ago in New York City. That, as an epidemiologist, who used to work on occupational and environmental health, we looked at people’s exposures to things like asbestos, mercury, toxins in the environment.

You can look at this as a toxin that’s very widespread in the African-American community of United States especially affecting young men who are most prone to be involved in behaviors like drugs, violence, being on the street that makes them vulnerable to getting picked up by the system.

Once they’re picked up by it, and so they’ve been infected. They carry it with them really pretty much their whole life because so much of that the structure of punishment, of mandatory sentences are connected up to what’s called predicate offenses – the idea that the first time you do something you make a probation for it. The next time you get a sentence, the next time you get a bigger sentence for exactly the same behavior. It’s a system that I imagine it’s deterring people but in fact that they reappear again and again shows that that’s not so.

What are your thoughts on policy approaches that draw from public health rather than criminal justice? Are there any examples of policy approaches that draw from public health rather than criminal justice? If so, do you think these are better or just reproduce the same systems of inequality?

Well, the policies in the criminal justice system don’t intentionally draw from public health. That’s not their model to that crime and punishment. One of the biggest contradictions or conflicts between the two models is that criminal justice model very much like medicine or a law enforcement is inherently on an individual basis, right? It’s about an individual who commits a crime. He gets charged, tried, convicted, acquitted, whatever but it’s a highly individual matter. In fact in the courts, sociological evidences are not really admissible as part of the discussion of the significance of an individual’s action. Therefore the individual case of crime and punishment is the unit of the criminal justice system.

The statistics that you do about populations in the throne of justice system are very similar to the ones that we do in public health-what could be done to help populations instead of individuals. What most of them don’t realize is that public health like medicine which is alive too is an interventional field. It’s like medicine. It’s involved in doing something about things. However these things that does that are not on the individual case basis but on the population affected. You reduce exposure to toxic fumes for everybody, not just people who get sick for a moment.

Try to apply that model to the criminal justice system is a stretch and needs an explanation because its’ engine, it’s the basis of decision making and justification is highly individual.

Now of course the intention behind it is exactly not individual, it’s societal, it’s collective. The idea of deterrents as referred for criminal penalties as opposed to deterrents for other people from doing bad things is inherently social. The effects although not examined that way usually are also very social. A guy goes to prison and leaves behind a family. That family is profoundly affected but what they do even public health for example that affect the mortality rate, the life expectancy and the achievement in college, the likelihood of going to prison. All those things are dramatically affected for the children of people who go to prison. It’s set in motion before they’re even old enough to commit a crime and get arrested.

That becomes the epidemic aspect of it, that’s how something is transmitted from generation to generation or passed from individual to individual by exposure the same way a coal miner coming home from the coal mines with coal dust on his clothes would make his child more likely to get lung disease. Likewise for a parent involved in criminal justice system in addition to the … I mean the fact of it is clear and the mechanism of it. It’s not the same as a physical exposure. It’s a psychic exposure, more in common with war and PTSD and trauma than it has in common with physical exposure to toxins but yeah, it does act as toxin.

We have a concept now that’s gaining. Currency about toxic stress actually comes out of pediatrics and developmental studies. Children, the idea that levels of abuse in a family that go on over time-living with an uncle that sexually abuses a little girl who keeps quiet about it. The stress of that builds overtime. No doubt there’s damage and that’s being recognized now.

The same thing with this large rate of criminal justice involvement – arrest, prison time, coming out with a stigma, going back in again – its relation to other criminal activities that aren’t inherently, drug use especially, it’s not the same as natural, the things that everyone agrees that are bad and shouldn’t do them, like assault, rape, kidnapping. Everybody agrees that those are things people shouldn’t do and you want laws against doing it. You want to enforce those laws.

The issue of punishment is a separate one but the idea of criminalization and why criminalization takes the form that it does is a very good question. We are obviously in a period now of criminalization amongst everything. About 35% of all Americans have a criminal record at this point.

The last question I have is a major focus of the just publics at 365 Project is bringing together academics, activists and journalists in ways that promote social justice, civic engagement and greater democracy. What sort of lessons learned do you have from your experience with your research about academics entering a terrain more frequently trialed by activists and journalists?

Well, academics have been involved in criminology forever. They’ve invented it but the more critical issue now is in the current world where you have ideas you want to have a voice in public policy and be understood by the general public are very important. You run up against, in terms of the way in which academics and journalists can play a role in public attitudes, literacy and ultimately support for or antagonism to new policies directly relates to what you’re talking about in just publics, and that is the development of public literacy, public understanding, public attitudes and not leave that to Fox News. The people who exploit to either gain attention, which is certainly true in politics like the tough-on-crime posture, is not particularly interested in statistics or outcomes because it’s another tool of promoting political careers and staking out of a place has become a mainstay of political strategies now. Anybody who doesn’t take that road get slammed by their opponents and so stays away from it. You haven’t heard a word about drugs and drug sentencing, drug regularization laws which are going on in the country. You haven’t heard a word about that in any political campaign in recent years, I haven’t at least. What was once upfront and can fit the most important issue even a dozen years ago isn’t there anymore because they recognize that there’s a lot of politicians, that there’s a lot of change in attitudes about drug recently, about drug laws, drug legalization now, a lot of legalizations now supported by 58% of adult population. You have legalizations in two states, Colorado and Washington for marijuana and other states doing a similar thing now. You can begin to see a crumbling on the war of drugs which has been the mighty engine that has driven massive incarceration but it will take its place in the immigration, immigration consulates and again the same thing again with the politicization of that discussion at the expense of immigrants who built this country with their hands, 400,000 deep rotations last year, a whole private industry. It’s imprisoning these people and transporting them. Sex offense is another growing issue of criminalization – watching porn on the internet. It can get you entrapped into major prison time. The financial crimes, not the Burney Maddox things but the small things like child support which fairly connects with child support. This is often built into the release arrangements, parole of people coming out of prison who are piling up to pay child support would come out of prison unable to earn any money certainly to pay back those debts. That becomes an example of something that’s set up to feed the criminal justice and prison system, which is going down from the drop in drug enforcement and drug arrest which is sad even though drugs are doing fine in America, methamphetamine trade especially. There isn’t the same appetite for pursuing it as there was. It becomes less of an issue in creating a prison population versus other things – immigration and financial crimes and sex offenses take its place.

Could you tell me about your work in harm reduction and, more broadly, organizations that have a desire to shift from a criminalization modality to a public health modality?

Harm reduction you asked about organization that have arisen, have a desire to change this model from criminal to public health. We have an organization called From Punishment to Public Health which is a collaboration of John Jay The City University, you guys, the Columbia School of Public Health, NYU School of Medicine and other departments on these institutions focusing on the issues for New York City that sit at the intersection of public health and criminal justice, things like domestic violence, drug overdoses, violence of all sorts actually done especially.

You really have to extend some effort to separate the public health view of something like gun violence from the criminal view of it, because the numbers and so even though they have a much lower than this, they’re still very substantial. You can’t pick up a paper in New York or Chicago. How do they know Los Angeles without review of awful shooting that destroyed people’s lives. When you count those up they become the major source of death and injury for many young adults and not to mention all the bystanders who get hit.
In the face of the politics of guns in United States and the NIH, it’s suppression of exactly public health research. The NIH managed to get the freeze on the CDC’s ability to do gun research going back to back 10 years, because when you look for the answers to these things, the question is like how many are affected, who, what makes a difference, what time of day – all those stuff is very hard to find because it allowed to be funded by CDC or NIH in the last decade. That’s changing now I think on the new machines that are coming in but there’s a real vacuum here. But that’s a natural place for public health methods looking at the angry kid effects, making maps looking at risk by age and location and gender. All are very, very powerful tools that in fact make a lot of sense for looking at criminal justice issues through a public health lens.

The harm reduction, how it relates to drugs and a view of accepting the fact that drug use is pretty universal. Always has been, always will be. That our goals have to be to reduce the consequences especially, those related to violence. More and more countries are thinking about drug policy in these terms.

Now, all the policy creates this violence. The most dramatic cases being those near us, in sexual marriage in Mexico, which is a huge epidemic of violence associated with the drug business to sell products that are essentially almost worthless. They are very worthless but free. The efforts to bring these drugs: cocaine, marijuana, heroin into the American market are associated with 60,000 murders in Mexico over the last 5, 6 years.

Talk about outsourcing. This is a problem that was in the United States at the time of the peak of the war on drugs in the 80s crack wars when between the start of the war on drugs in the 70s and the decline in crime in the 90s in the 20-year-period, there were 200,000 extra homicides compared to the 10 years before and the 10 years since when the enforcement and the violence associated with drug enforcement in the United States diminished dramatically but moved over to Mexico into the supply side and the local markets.

A wonderful film called The House I Live In by Jarecki which is really, does a very good job of telling the whole story but especially depicting the level of violence of drug enforcement in this period and the exposure to that of so many people. That’s was the mechanism that built the prison population and once you’re in it, you stay in it one way or another, reset in the prison, re-entry and all that.


Special Interview with Eric Cadora on Mapping, Criminalization, and Public Health


I had the opportunity to interview Eric Cadora, the founder of the Justice Mapping Center. In this interview, we talk about Mapping, Criminalization and Public Health.



Can you share a little bit about how your writing or your data visualizations speak to issues of criminalization and public health?

First and foremost, I think, what we were trying to do through using maps and geography to talk about criminal justice was we’ve been trying to reframe the conversation about crime and public safety onto communities rather than on crime, and one of the things that occurred to me when we first started doing this was that if you shift the focus from crime events to where people live who are going in and out of prison and you map that, you’re going to have a very different story than if you’re looking at crime maps, which were much more popular. By shifting it to show the disproportionate concentration of criminal justice in particular neighborhoods, you can start to talk about places rather than get pigeon holed in that getting tough, being soft polemic that everyone got stuck on. It was a story that I didn’t think had really been told empirically, so we started collecting data from places about where people lived who were going in and out of prison and jail, and that helped us paint a geographic picture and, of course, maps are a much more compelling way to portray the issue because everyone gets it, whether you’re a researcher or a legislator, and everybody sees immediately what’s going on, which turns out to be really this mass migration, population displacement and resettlement project, even if unintentional, so that when you map where people are going in and out of prison from and returning to, you see this almost pattern of mass migration.

Then we thought, “Let’s try to dramatize the trade offs in the underwriting of this whole cycling process. Because we had collected data on where everyone lived who was going in and out of prison, where they went to and for how long, and you know how much it cost per day, we were able to translate the data into dollar estimates of block by block, how much is New York State paying to remove and return people from each of these blocks? When we first looked at Brooklyn, we found 35 of what we then coined as “Million-dollar blocks,” single city blocks for which the State was paying more than a million dollars a year to remove and return people to and from prison on average for about three-and-a-half years or so. Of course, none of that money was going into those places. It was renting prison cells, and so, by doing the million-dollar blocks graphics and geographics, we were able to shift the conversation and suggest that there’s a trade off there, and that those dollars are really there for the benefit of the well being of those places.

Then you ask the imaginary question. If you had the million dollars a year, that block and those guys, what would you do? Would you spend it all on sending them away for two or three years and then having them come back with no changes to the neighborhood, or would you try to reinvest them in some other conditions that are prevalent in the neighborhood itself?

Ultimately, what we’ve done is tried to show that these places are inundated with criminal justice and that no more criminal justice is going to make any difference, and that, in fact, when we look at the other kinds of data about those neighborhoods, like living environments, housing costs, income, poverty levels, health, etc., we start to find that there are many weak civil institutions, and in some ways, the criminal justice system is responding to that poverty and ill health with more criminal justice, as if that could sort of balance it out for the weakness of those other institutions, and of course, it doesn’t.

Portraying all this vis a vis maps of neighborhoods has been a way of showing where the rubber really hits the road because even though we know about about a lot of the statistics about mass incarceration and disproportionality, those disproportionalities are mild compared to the ones between one neighborhood and another in any particular major city. That’s where the real differences are, and you really start to see where the system takes effect.

As time has gone on, though, we’ve been looking more at these neighborhoods, and what becomes evident and what linked up in our mind with public health and the inevitability of really thinking more about this in terms of public health and public safety is that these neighborhoods are increasingly characterized by emergency response systems, urgent care response systems, so not just the prison or the jail but also the emergency room. The homeless shelter, foster care, etc. Last resort options. Last resort techniques, but mainly into populations that suffer from chronic issues. Increasingly, once we start to add these up, we see incredible amounts of money being spent for emergency response systems for people who need chronic neighborhood network care, not emergency response care, and that’s where we’ve been increasingly focusing our vision on how do you dramatize that issue and start to suggest ways in which you can pull out of those emergency response approaches and start to develop the more useful neighborhood chronic care networks and outreach systems.

What are your thoughts on policy approaches that draw from public health rather than criminal justice? Do you think that these are better or just reproduce the same systems of inequality?

That’s an awfully good question. There is an increasing realization in public health about the need for harm reduction approaches rather than emergency, and I think there’s also an increasing realization that these emergency response systems are simply making up for weak civil chronic care systems. Increasingly, I think there is attention to, “Why are we treating asthma, why are we treating outcomes of obesity, why are we treating drug addiction in emergency rooms at incredible costs and very little effect when these are issues that are more chronic and require prevention, education, and on-the-ground kinds of services that are a little more sophisticated than the big institution?”

Instead of plopping a big hospital or a big community center or a big … All these kinds of things are suggesting increasingly that integrating networks of public health and public safety into the networks that are already active in those neighborhoods. People are already grappling with health issues, are already grappling with problems of unemployment and problems of criminal justice, so what’s a little more difficult but much more effective is this understanding that we should tap into those networks and let’s help mobilize those that are already on the ground. I think public health environments are increasingly realizing that, but I also think that criminal justice solutions can really find a purchase in public health thinking, particularly around harm reduction and chronic care, so that we come up with the kinds of responses to crime and criminal offenses and so on that are not simply harmful and costly with very little productivity and a great deal of cost to the community but in fact, could be integrated into those networks in the community, into developing community service work, into a whole range of options that don’t necessarily require iron bars and concrete walls for punishment, and I think public health, because the public health environment suffers from some of the same over urgent care responses, it also has a lot more tested solutions, I think, to those problems that criminal justice can borrow and take advantage of.

I also think that people just don’t realize how closely the populations are overlapping; that is, populations that are in chronic ill health over time due to relationships with poverty and so on are the same populations that are going in and out or prison and jail, and so understanding those two as a single group in a certain way gives you more opportunity to wed solutions that are greater, where the whole is greater than the individual parts. I think it’s inevitable, in fact, that public health and safety will be increasingly considered a thing, a single unitary way of thinking, rather than this more fractured sense of criminal justice and healthcare.

A major focus of JustPublics@365 is bringing together academics, activists and journalists in ways that promote social justice, civic engagement and greater democracy. What sort of ‘lessons learned’ do you have from your experience with entering a terrain more frequently trod by activists and academics?

Yeah. I’ll admit, that’s kind of what one of the sort of planks of our approach has been to say, “Look. Most stories are about crime in the criminal justice journalist’s word, and those that aren’t are about reentry or prisons and tend to be anecdotal or, if they’re statistics, they tend to be very far reaching, but I think journalists can find better purchase in stories that focus on specific neighborhoods and understanding the hyper concentration of criminal justice in those places and starting to reveal those or tell those stories in a way that both highlights these new data and this new realization about these highly-concentrated, incarceration hotspots, you might say, and the collective impact on those neighborhoods of such a large proportion of mainly parenting-aged and working-aged men recycling through the prison system back into the community en masse, in a way that makes the whole community downwardly mobile and instead of being a solution to what’s been going on to crime and so on, the cure itself has become a measure of disadvantage in those neighborhoods so that when you look at a place and you say, “Well, it’s high poverty, low income, high incarceration itself is now one of those disadvantages because of the terrible impact it has on future life chances, whether it’s employment or health or education or even staying out of jail.

I think increasingly journalists an turn to these new sources of data, and this stuff has, I’d say, emerged over the last decade where the focus of the crime conversation is no longer simply crime prevention techniques but rather, a better understanding of what hyper criminal justice activity, what kind of damage that is causing, and the pretty obvious and straight forward, available solutions there are to remedy that.


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.”

Special Interview with gabriel sayegh on Municipal Drug Strategies

gabriel sayeghThis week I interviewed gabriel sayegh, the director of the Drug Policy Alliance’s New York policy office. In this interview, we talk about municipal drug strategies in Canada and Europe and explore opportunities for New York to implement these types of municipal-drug strategies.




What are municipal drug strategies?

Municipal drug strategy is simply a city-based strategy for approaching the problems of drugs and that when you have a situation of opening our drug market as an example or drug-related disorder, cities are often the first jurisdictions that have to address and deal with those problems. Of course, not every element of drug use is a problem. That’s not the case at all but there are instances particularly in cities when drug use can become deeply problematic, either because of overdose fatalities or the transmission of HIV and AIDS or drug related crime or disorder related to open drug markets or public drug consumption. Continue reading

Special Interview with Alondra Nelson on Criminalization and Public Health


This past week, I interviewed Alondra Nelson, PhD (Professor of Sociology and Director, Institute for Research on Women and Gender at Columbia University), about her research on the Black Panther Party, which culminated in her most recent book Body and Soul: The Black Panther Party and the Fight Against Medical Discrimination. In this interview, I ask Professor Nelson about her experience entering spaces more commonly trodden by activists, what role she thinks stigma has in criminalization and public health, and the problems she sees with medicalizing behavior.

Can you share a bit about how your research speaks to issues of criminalization and public health?

I guess I set out to study public health, in a sense, but certainly not criminalization. In the process of writing my last book “Body and Soul: The Black Panther Party and the Fight Against Medical Discrimination,” I discovered while doing that research that members of the Black Panther Party were involved in a legal campaign, an activist campaign, to block funding to a proposed research center at UCLA in the early 1970s, 1972 specifically. This center was to be called The Center for the Study and Reduction of Violence, and it was being proposed at a time where there was a lot of public anxiety and public discourse around violence in American society. It was a time during which the covers of Time magazine and Life magazine were posing the question “What are we going to do about this scourge of violence in our society?” One of the answers that arises, or response to this moral panic, is this proposal for this center at UCLA.

The center is interesting for a couple of reasons. One, that I don’t delve in too much into in the book but is worth noting in our conversation, is that the Center is being proposed underneath the umbrella of Neuropsychiatric Institute at UCLA, which still exists, and it’s at a moment where psychologists and psychiatrists are in effect working to make their disciplines more scientific. Now, it’s common place for a colleague in psychology departments to do research using MRI, and these sorts things it was uncommon. It was a moment in the evolution of psychology and psychiatry that it was becoming more scientific. Part of how it was becoming more scientific at this UCLA project is that they were looking almost solely to biological and physiological causes for violent behavior. They were looking at endocrine levels. They were looking at genes. They were doing a proposed study that was going to look into violence in the XYY chromosome. There’s a study that was proposed to look at, the hypothesis was “are women more or less violent at different moments in their menstrual cycle.” There were a couple of proposals that began from the assumption that Black and Latino boys and men were biologically prone to be violent. It was criminalizing in two ways. One the one hand, it assumed that there were two kind of pools (there are lots of different research project that would have been housed in this violence center, but one of the projects was planning to look at populations to test prisoners, primarily Black and Brown prisoners, to see if there was something effectively wrong with their brains; if there was brain pathology that was why they were violent. These were people who were already incarcerated and institutionalized, so the assumption there was that there was a link between biology, brain pathology, and violence.

On the other hand, there was another study that proposed to look at Black and Brown boys in the Los Angeles public school district with the implication being that these boys were on their way to being criminals. So, can we intervene? Let’s look at their brains before things go bad, or maybe they’re just natural born criminals and things will already go bad. The interesting thing is that at least some of these research projects are obviously about ideas about who are criminals, who are natural born criminals, in a way that goes back to Lambroso in the 19th century, this idea that some people are inherently bad seeds. On the other hand, and this goes to the public health piece, it was articulated in the proposal in a train around health care and health issues, wanting a healthier society and that the justification for doing it was more social health and social well-being.

How has criminalization and mass incarceration affected the lives of people in your research?

My research has been among, this for this book in particular, both health activists who are professionals and health activists who are lay experts or lay people. It’s less the health piece, but it’s more that they’re activists that have led to criminalization and mass incarceration being significant parts of their lives.

I write about the Black Panther Party. As we know from the historical record, as we know from the media and the like, that the federal government, the US Government, made it it’s mission to really decimate the Black Panther Party’s ranks. The counter-intelligence program, COINTELPRO, went about the work of decimating the ranks of the Black Panther Party and really just diminishing their spirit through many means. They planted news stories and they shaped public perception about the party. One of the things that people often ask me is “Why haven’t we heard any of this stuff about the Black Panther Party’s self-activism?” One of the answers I suggest is that the COINTELPRO was successful in shaping media frame around the Panthers even for those who might have been sympathetic. The federal government’s work of framing the party also did the work of shaping our national memory of them.

There’s that piece. Part of it was also that, under the banner of then-governor Reagan being a law-and-order governor and a backlash to the activism of the 60’s, there was a, effectively, war on activists although it was never named. We had the war on cancer and we had the war on poverty, but there was certainly also a war on activists.

This meant that many of the people who were involved in the Black Panther Party and other activist organizations from the time went to jail on trumped up charges or went to jail perhaps on legitimate charges, but served or continued to serve disproportionate sentences. People have been in jail or in solitary confinement for crimes that they were convicted of in a legal process that somewhat questionable for 30, 40 years. One of the legacies of the Black Panther Party and the way that they responded happens in this cauldron of expansion of mass incarceration and the criminalization of activism as an excuse for doing that.

Just to give you an example of how things have changed in the last 4 decades or so, the activists that I write about would basically set up a storefront health clinics, for example, or they would set up the headquarters of Black Panther offices at storefronts. These sorts of things. People ask me now, “Could they do this now?” The only legacy of this work that was able to continue on in the same way, although there’s lots of legacies of the Black Panthers self-activism, is the Common Ground Health Clinic that springs up after Hurricane Katrina. I argue that the only reason that it was even able to happen is because the entire health care and criminal justice infrastructure of the city had completely collapsed.

The Common Ground Health Clinic was started by a former Black Panther, and a nurse, and another activist. Three days after Hurricane Katrina comes through, but within 6 months, the Common Ground Health Clinic had become an NGO. There was a lot of pressure from both state and federal agencies for them to get licensing and these sorts of things. So, for the most part, the Black Panther activism that I write about, worked against the grain of being public health authorities. They actually resisted and rejected any effort for them, for the most part, to get licensing and accreditation from local or state agencies. There was certainly the place in Chicago where there was a series of lawsuits that was trying to get the Black Panthers to go to be under the auspices of the public health authority in that city.

But what happens now? The Hurricane Katrina Common Ground Collective Clinic is, I think, anomalous because Hurricane Katrina, a natural and unnatural disaster, was a bit anomalous. You couldn’t pull this work off today because if you open a storefront clinic, it would be shut down by police authorities in a day or two. I don’t think could make a go of it. I think one of the enduring legacies of this criminalization of activism is (just to look at activism at a place in New York City today); I participated, for example, last March and our colleague Jessie Daniels was there as well. I was there with her in the silent March against stop and frisk practices in New York City. That was up and down along parts of Fifth Avenue.

In order to pull off that March, the activists had to go to City Hall. They had to file a permit. They had to get permission from the state. They had to tell the mayor’s office or the police department between which blocks they would walk on Fifth Avenue. They had to tell the mayor’s office and the police department at which times the protest would take place. That creates a different kind of activism. Could you imagine if during the civil rights movement, you had to go to Bull Connor, a notorious racist police officer, and tell him that you’re going to do a sit-in between these days or you’re going to hold a March at this time between these days. It would have been impossible. But because one of the responses to the population of activists that I studied in the 60’s and 70’s has been the criminalization of activism, we no longer can even imagine organic activism excepting the Occupy movement in recent years.

I’m going to throw 3 questions at you. What are your thoughts on policy approaches that draw from public health rather than criminal justice? Are there any examples of policy approaches that draw from public health rather than criminal justice? If so, do you think these are better or just reproduce the same systems of inequality?

Those are tough questions I think because it depends on the population. In Sociology, Peter Conrad, among others, have developed and elaborated this idea of medicalization. In a classic book Peter Conrad and his coauthor write about the process of medicalization moving a behavior or a condition from the category of sin or stigma to illness. That illness allows people to take what a person would call a social role. It allows people to sometimes get sympathy and get resources. There’s a whole suite of social actions that come into play when someone is identified as having an illness and being a patient and being more sympathetic.

I think that to put something in a public health frame rather than a criminal frame ideally allows this to happen for people. If someone is a drug addict and struggling with drug addiction, ideally for us to say as a society and as physicians and activists, this type of person is suffering with a disease and we shouldn’t stigmatize the behavior. We need to use the whole apparatus of public health resources to help this person.

The classic medicalization story is alcoholism. Alcoholism going from being a crime or a sin to being a condition where people can say “I’m an alcoholic” and they’re in that healing process and these sorts of things. However, and I argue this a little bit in the Panther book when talking about health issues, I think if a population is already so deeply stigmatized like particularly poor African-Americans and poor African-American males so that they’re almost like a caste in thinking about the lack of social mobility in India. The shift from criminalization to medicalization doesn’t offer that transition that I’m talking about necessarily.

For some poor, marginalized population, they’re so over-determined by criminal stigma and racism, effectively, that that window, that threshold to medicalization that might offer public support, resources, sympathy, a new social role is not available to them. I think that, and this is going to end our conversation on a down note, but the down note is to just accept that that’s true and not look to the public health arena as the panacea for social progress. I just think there are, fundamentally, groups for whom medicalization doesn’t work in the same way.

We need to work on the bigger issue of stigma. If you have a group of people who are like a caste; who are considered subhuman, a-human, always criminal, beyond help, undeserving; the move to a public health frame alone is not going to work. I think that that can be part of the piece, the move from criminalization to public health, but the larger work needs to be around a human rights struggle that awakens the awareness and the humanity of all of us.

A major focus of JustPublics@365 is bringing together academics, activists and journalists in ways that promote social justice, civic engagement and greater democracy. What sort of ‘lessons learned’ do you have from your experience entering a terrain more frequently trod by activists and journalists?

I think one answer comes out of my research and one that comes out of my experience working with JustPublics@365. As a researcher I learned that the way that we as a society treat activists, and treated this activist population that I worked with in particular, has consequences for what we can know about the world. It took me a very long time to have access to some of the people that I have interviews with in my book, in part because they have been so mistreated by other researchers; they had been so mistreated by other forms of authority: police authority, physicians. As a researcher, I couldn’t just go in and say, “I’m a young professor at Yale. Let me interview you.”

Most other places in the world, if you say “I’m professor XY from XY of the institution, that opens doors for you.”. But in activist circles, that often closes doors. What that meant is that I had to build long-term, sustained, still-existing-today relationships with the people I wanted to speak with for my book. These had to become more than just me parachuting down, extracting information and resources, and parachuting out.

These were long conversations that continue on. I’ve been happy to receive feedback about my book from the people I’ve spoke with and receive feedback from them. I think that’s one lesson. One lesson is that the structural balances in society are what they are. I know enough not to say that my structural relationship with working class activists is equal. We’re not equal in that way, but to the extent that we can try to have egalitarian relationships with the people that we work with, we need to try to do that.

I think organizations like the Panther Party offered really interesting ways for thinking about that. By necessity, they had to collaborate with doctors and nurses, nursing students, medical students to do their clinics. They didn’t have enough manpower or expertise to pull off a nationwide network of health clinics by their own, but they vetted everyone who worked with them. You couldn’t just come in and say, “Oh, I’m a medical resident at Harvard. Let me come and work in your clinic.” The party wanted to know what your political aspirations were, what your theory of social justice was. They wanted to know if you had read Franz Fanon, if you had read John Hope Franklin, if you had read Malcolm X, and often demanded that you do so. I think that we need to think about these as wholesome relationships that come with responsibilities and obligations on all sides.

More recently, I had the opportunity to participate on a panel that sets public health with Lillian Guerra, whose an editor at The Nation, gabriel Sayegh from the Drug Policy Alliance, and Glenn Martin who’s from an organization for formally incarcerated folks. I wasn’t sure, sitting down with these people who do work that’s a lot more contemporary, where the Black Panther piece would fit, but the round table (you’re never sure how these things are going to turn out when people are speaking, in some ways, informally), was very enlightening.

It was really challenging me to think about what this historical story meant for now. I think as scholars, you don’t have to justify why a historical work matters. We inherently think as scholars that a type of work that tells a new story or allows us to see the world anew, has inherent value. I think sitting in a conversation with two activists and a journalist really forced me to think of the “now” of the project.

The criminalization of activism now, that we talked about previously, that would make it impossible to have an organization like the Black Panthers to do the health activist work that they were doing, to do it now. Or to think about all that has changed with regard to the full-scaling up of mass incarceration in such a way that you might not even have in-community enough people and leadership to sustain the activist communities that you did 40 years ago.

For me, as a researcher-scholar-activist, the most important takeaway from that experience was to always, not in a present tense sense, everything from the past doesn’t have some residence in the present, but to think about those places where it does and where the work can be used in the presence of making a better world today.



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, “Stop-and-Frisk Series.”

Michael Fabricant and Michelle Fine on Charter Schools and the Corporate Makeover of Public Education

Charter Schools: JustPublics@365 PodcastIn this week’s episode of the JustPublics@365 podcast series, I sit down with Michelle Fine and Michael Fabricant to talk about the charter school movement. Their recent book, Charter Schools and the Corporate Makeover of Public Education: What’s at Stake? (2012) questions the promise of the charter school movement. The book seeks to use empirical data to determine whether charter schooling offers an authentic alternative to the public school system.


Podcast – Michael Fabricant and Michelle Fine

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This post is part of the JustPublics@365 Podcast Series. The podcast series features CUNY Graduate Center faculty who are working on issues of social justice and inequality. If you have any questions, research that you would like to share, or are interested in being interviewed for the series, please contact Heidi Knoblauch at

Joseph Straus on Disability Studies and Music Theory

JustPublics@365 Joe Straus PodcastIn this week’s episode of the JustPublics@365 Podcast Series, I interview Joseph Straus on his work on disability studies and music. Professor Straus is a Distinguished Professor in the Music Department at the Graduate Center and author of Extraordinary Measures: Disability in Music (2011) and Sounding Off: Theorizing Disability in Music (2006). In addition to his work on disability in music, Professor Straus has worked on StravinskyTwelve-tone Serialism, and Ruth Crawford Seeger.

Our conversation centers around Professor Sraus’s research and theorizing on disability in music. We discuss how disability has traditionally been treated by music theorists and why Professor Straus has decided to take a different approach.


Podcast – Joseph Straus



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This post is part of the JustPublics@365 Podcast Series. The podcast series features CUNY Graduate Center faculty who are working on issues of social justice and inequality. If you have any questions, research that you would like to share, or are interested in being interviewed for the series, please contact Heidi Knoblauch at

Frances Fox Piven on the Development of the Welfare State, Voting, and Activism in the Academy

ClosingPlenary PivenSS

In this episode of the JustPublics@365 podcast series, I interview Distinguished Professor Frances Fox Piven (Graduate Center, CUNY). Professor Piven is an expert in the development of the welfare state, political movements, urban politics, voting, and electoral politics, and she has been politically engaged with improving the lives of America’s poor since the 1960s. She has taught at several universities in the United States and Europe and among her many books are the bestselling Poor People’s Movements (1977), one of four books she coauthored with Richard A. Cloward; Mean Season: The Attack on the Welfare State (1987); Why Americans Don’t Vote (1989); Why Americans Still Don’t Vote: And Why Politicians Want It That Way (2000); Challenging Authority: How Ordinary People Change America (2008), with Joshua Cohen. In addition, she was invited to write introductions to re-issued volumes of The Lean Years (2010) and The Turbulent Years (2010), both by Irving Bernstein. In this episode, we address the Supreme Court’s recent ruling on the Voting Rights Act, her work as an activist, and her research on the welfare system in America.


Podcast – Frances Fox Piven



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This post is part of the JustPublics@365 Podcast Series. The podcast series features CUNY Graduate Center faculty who are working on issues of social justice and inequality. If you have any questions, research that you would like to share, or are interested in being interviewed for the series, please contact Heidi Knoblauch at

Special Interview with Jamilah King on Covering Stop-and-Frisk


Jamilah King is the news editor at, coordinating story assignments as news breaks, as well as covering urban politics and youth culture. In this interview we talk about her involvement as one of the leading journalists working on the issues of urban politics and youth culture in New York City and what changes she foresees coming from District Court Judge Shira Scheindlin’s recent ruling on Stop-And-Frisk.

Can you share a little bit about yourself and your involvement as one of the leading journalists working on the issues of urban politics and youth culture in New York City?

I’m a senior editor at I have been with Colorlines for quite a few years. We were really moved by the issues of “Stop and Frisk” for a number of reasons but primarily as people of color who live in New York City it’s an issue that deserves attention and that’s why we try to cover it.

What is

Colorlines is a national news site where we aren’t afraid to talk about race. That could mean everything from talking about things that are kind of explicitly about race, issues like “Stop and Frisk” for sure. Pretty policy heavy and exists within this long history of police harassment of men of color specifically. It can also mean talking about music and culture and that’s sort of where I sort of step into the picture and look at issues as they relate to culture. How people move through cities or move through environments and the policies that affect that movement. For instance, today we did a story on the Swedish band Dragon, they’re getting ready to release their new album. Using a lot of South African house music on it. It’s kind of a little bit of everything. But it’s multi-centered on the idea that we’re not afraid to talk about race in an era when a lot of people are really really afraid to talk about race.

Our social justice topic series on stop-and-frisk is focused on envisioning what NYC will look like without stop-and-frisk tactics. In your experience, what changes, if any, do you foresee with District Court Judge Shira Scheindlin’s recent ruling to end this controversial policing experiment? What does this ruling mean to the young men and women of color in NYC? 

I think the first thing is a lot of the folks that have been covering “Stop and Frisk.” a lot of the folks that have been advocating force and of course folks who have been directly targeted by “Stop and Frisk” practices would like to envision a New York that is actually welcoming to all of its inhabitants. You know New York has this global reputation as the city where anyone can come and make something happen. Where anyone can come and make themselves feel at home. I think that historically that has been true for certain communities. Primarily white communities or communities of privilege. But it has not historically been true for communities of color.

We did a couple of pieces specifically talking to young men of color and young people of color who were targeted by “Stop and Frisk” all the way back to 2010. We actually talked to the David Floyd who really emphasized this idea of wanting to walk down the street and not feel a sense of fear. That you are a target. In my reporting I’ve talked to a number of psychologists and policy folks who were really trying to bring home the point, the psychological, emotional and physical impact that a policy like “Stop and Frisk” has on someone.

If you are a young man of color who is walking down the street and you do get stopped and you do get cited for whatever reason, I think that it has a profound impact on not only on the way that you see police, but the way that you see yourself. I was talking to a young man who actually last summer who lived in Brownville, Brooklyn.He’s a guy who works at a community center and he had grown up in Brownsville. He really communicated to me just feeling like you’ve done something wrong. Just by being in your skin, your body. You, by walking down the street, is somehow a criminal act.

That is wrong on any number of levels. But it’s especially wrong when you think about it in this context of really policing the bodies of people of color.

I know that a lot of “Stop and Frisk” is very specifically about black and brown men. But it’s also an issue we have seen with queer communities of color. It’s also an issue with women of color. I think the broader issues of surveillance of communities of color is something that you see across these different sections. The AP, Associated Press, did a story, an investigation last year looking into the unwarranted surveillance of Muslim communities of New York State. And now you have all these NSA revelations we’re all seeing that we’re being targeted in some way, shape or form. Even for folks who aren’t directly impacted by a thing like “Stop and Frisk” I think they should be wary of it because it sets a precedent. It sets a precedent for the types of behaviors that law enforcement can engage in. While those behaviors may start with one particular community they often expand to a lot of other people.

A major focus of JustPublics@365 is bringing together academics, activists and journalists in ways that promote social justice, civic engagement and greater democracy.  What sort of ‘lessons learned’ do you have  from your experience with activists and journalists working together to shed light on Stop-and-Frisk?  

I think that “Stop and Frisk” is a really is a model of a very specific policy issue that gained a lot of traction, thanks in part to those different sectors working together and each sharing their expertise. You know? You had groups in New York City who had long been working on issues of police accountability and they were sort of very involved in the organizing elements of this. You have groups like Communities Against Violence, you have also the Malcolm X Project, these groups that have long been doing this type of work. they were very much integral in pushing that policy agenda.

Then you had young people. You had young people, you had young media makers, media makers in general actually capturing what was happening. That actually gave voices and stories and faces and names to the issues that many people felt very detached from. Then of course you had the academic aspect of it which gave a lot of context, historical context that was going on. I think especially in my work as a journalist it was really important to get the perspective of academics who not only work in policy, but as I mentioned before who are psychologists and can actually talk about this as a public health issue and not just one of quote-unquote political correctness.

I think that by having a bunch of different people at the table owning their expertise, giving and allowing each other the room and the space to own that issue from their perspective. “You are great with a camera go out and make a short video,” if you are great at sort of getting into the meat of things. If you’re a great organizer and can bring a hundred or two hundred people together, then do that. I think you really, really saw a lot of that traction and positive energy around this issue.

What people and resources (both print and social media) should individuals follow to stay on top of news related to stop-and-frisk? is a good resource that I’d encourage everyone to read. Also organizations that have been working on this issue. I mentioned Malcolm X Project does a lot around policy. The Nation magazine published, about a year ago, one of the first videos that captured the interaction between a young man of color, and a police officer, who was being stopped and frisked. Those are the sort of outlets that I think that folks can go to if they want to stay plugged in. I’d also say that this is an issue that’s built around personal narrative. I think talking to people in your community about issues of police harassment or even talking to police officers themselves, ones who are safe to talk to and are willing to engage around what does safe and accountable police look like. Those are the conversations that can be had in a number of communities, not just New York.

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This post is part of the Monthly Social Justice Topic Series on stop-and-friskIf you have any questions, research that you would like to share related to Stop-and-Frisk or are interested in being interviewed for the series, please contact Morgane Richardson at with the subject line, “Stop-and-Frisk Series.”

Ashley Dawson on Resistance: JustPublics@365 Podcast Series

In this week’s episode of the JustPublics@365 podcast series I interview Ashley Dawson, Professor of English at the College of Staten Island about his book Mongrel Nation and about his work as the web co-editor of the journal Social Text.

Ashley DawsonIn this interview we talk about some of the ways migrant communities have established a sense of self and community within nations and the history of resistance by African, Asian, Caribbean and white Britons to insular representations of national identity. Professor Dawson also talks about how his academic work and academic training impacts his social justice work.

Podcast – Ashley Dawson on Resistance






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This post is part of the JustPublics@365 Podcast Series. The podcast series features CUNY Graduate Center faculty who are working on issues of social justice and inequality. If you have any questions, research that you would like to share, or are interested in being interviewed for the series, please contact Heidi Knoblauch at

Margaret M. Chin on Garment Workers

In this week’s episode of the JustPublics@365 Podcast Series, I interview Margaret M. Chin, Professor of Sociology at Hunter College and the Graduate Center, CUNYMargaret-Chin

Professor Chin was born in New York City, and is the daughter of a former garment worker and restaurant waiter. Her research interests focus on new immigrants, working poor families, race and ethnicity, and Asian Americans. She is currently working on a project on the 1.5 and second generation Asian Americans who lost or changed jobs during the recent recession. Her book Sewing Women: Immigrants and the New York City Garment Industry explores how immigration status, family circumstances, ethnic relations, and gender affect the garment industry workplace. In this book, she contrasts the working conditions and hiring practices of Korean- and Chinese-owned factories. This comparison illuminates how ethnic ties both improve and hinder opportunities for immigrants.

In todays interview, we talk about Professor Chin’s current research, how she gathered her research her motivation for doing this research, as well as her findings about how workers perceived garment work.

Podcast – Margaret M. Chin on Garment Workers

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This post is part of the JustPublics@365 Podcast Series. The podcast series features CUNY Graduate Center faculty who are working on issues of social justice and inequality. If you have any questions, research that you would like to share, or are interested in being interviewed for the series, please contact Heidi Knoblauch at