Tag Archives: Punishment to Public Health

“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

Drug Policy Reform Symposium May 1-2

In his research, CUNY Professor Harry Levine documents the racial pattern in marijuana use and arrest rates. The data tell a story that whites use marijuana at higher rates, yet blacks and Latinos in neighborhoods like East Harlem are arrested for marijuana at much higher rates.

MJ Use and Arrests

 (Image source)

Marijuana policy is not a new issue to New York City nor to East Harlem.

In 1939—on the heels of the national 1937 Marihuana Tax Act, which established federal marijuana prohibition—New York City Mayor Fiorella LaGuardia called upon The New York Academy of Medicine (NYAM) in East Harlem to produce a report about marijuana.

Mayor LaGuardia(Image source)

The La Guardia Committee Report: The Marihuana Problem in the City of New York was published in 1944 as one of the nation’s first systematic studies addressing many of the myths about marijuana, including: the alleged connection to “madness;” addictive potential; supposed role as a ‘gateway’ to other drug use; usage patterns; and potential relationship to crime and violence. The LaGuardia report concluded that “the sociological, psychological, and medical ills commonly attributed to marihuana have been found to be exaggerated.”

To mark the 70th anniversary of the LaGuardia Report, The Drug Policy Alliance (DPA) and The New York Academy of Medicine (NYAM)  are hosting a symposium to look back on the LaGuardia Report in order to inform a rich discussion of contemporary drug policy reform efforts, both nationally and in New York. The symposium brings together scholars, activists, journalists and elected officials from East Harlem to explore the historical context and the ongoing public debates and actions about marijuana and drug policy reform.

Marijuana & Drug Policy Reform
in New York—The LaGuardia Report at 70

May 1, 6-8 PM
May 2, 10 AM – 5 PM

A symposium hosted by
The New York Academy of Medicine and the Drug Policy Alliance

Program highlights include

Thursday, May 1

6:00 PM — The John K. Lattimer Lecture: Richard Bonnie, University of Virginia.

Friday, May 2

10:00 AM — Melissa Mark-Viverito, Speaker, New York City Council

Panel Discussion: Drug Wars Past & Present.

Moderator: Paul Theerman, Ph.D., The New York Academy of Medicine
Jeffrion Aubrey, Speaker Pro Tempore, New York State Assembly
Jason Glenn, Ph.D., University of Texas Medical Branch, Galveston
Sam Roberts, Ph.D., Columbia University
Deborah Small, J.D., Executive Director, Break the Chains
Bobby Tolbert, Community Leader and Board Member, VOCAL-NY

1:00 PM — Panel Discussion: The Contemporary Research Agenda for Drug Use & Abuse

Moderator: Julie Netherland, Ph.D., Drug Policy Alliance
Helena Hansen, Ph.D., M.D., New York University
Julie Holland, M.D., psychiatrist and author
Amanda Reiman, Ph.D., Drug Policy Alliance, San Francisco
Maia Szalavitz, journalist

3:00 PM — Panel Discussion: New York Marijuana Policy Reform in 2014

Moderator: Kassandra Frederique, M.S.W., Drug Policy Alliance
Richard Gottfried, New York State Assembly, 75th District
Hakeem Jeffries, United States Congress, 8th District
Harry Levine, Ph.D., Queens University
Art Way, J.D., Drug Policy Alliance, Denver

4:30 PM — Closing Presentation: Dr. David T. Courtwright, University of North Florida

5:00 PM – Final Remarks: gabriel sayegh, Drug Policy Alliance

* * *

This event is FREE but registration is required for both days. To register for this event (required), click here (Thursday evening lecture) and here (Friday). The symposium takes place at the New York Academy of Medicine, located at 1216 Fifth Avenue at 103rd Street.  You can also follow along on the hashtag #LGA70.

For more background on this important topic, see our “From Punishment to Public Health,” available as an eBook and a PDF.


Punishment to Public Health: Bringing it All Together

Over the last couple of months, we’ve highlighted the ways scholars, activists and journalists work to further social justice by shifting the public policy framework from one of “punishment” to “public health,” or P2PH. As we’ve shown, the research is clear that our policy of mass incarceration of the past 30 years damages our society.  Today, we bring it all together.

The P2PH Information Guide is designed to bring together scholarship, activist strategies, and digital media tools to help you create your own social justice campaign.

punishment(Image source)

Our goal with bringing this all together is to create a practical, resource-rich, all-in-one introduction to start a social justice digital campaign, whether you are an activist on the ground,  a journalist writing a story or an academic who may want to connect your research to creating a more just society.

We hope that the Information Guide will help you reach you more people by integrating some of the most widely used social networks into your social justice campaign, your reporting, and your research or your classroom projects. 

Click here to download the PDF.

Click here for the eBook.

If you have any questions in planning your campaign, please feel free to contact us at justpublics365@gmail.com or send us a tweet, @JustPublics365.


Using Infographics to Shift the Debate on Gun Violence

Infographics, a blend of solid statistics and compelling graphic design, can help shift the debate on important social issues like gun violence. Our current series examines the ways that policy approaches rooted in criminalization might shift if they were re-framed as public health issues instead. In many ways, gun violence is the best example of how our criminalization has not solved a problem that seriously harms peoples’ health. As previous posts here have noted, the data on gun ownership and gun violence can be daunting. Infographics can help clarify what the patterns are, and what the harm to health really is, like this one:

Gun Violence in America

Explore more infographics like this one on the web’s largest information design community – Visually.

This inforgraphic was created using the web-based tool Visual.ly, which is among the best tools available for telling compelling stories with data.

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.


Reframing Gun Violence as a Public Health Issue

Our series on “Punishment to Public Health” continues. This week, we turn our attention to gun violence as a public health issue.  In many ways, this is a key example of the way that our usual policies of criminalization around guns have failed us as a society.

No Gun Sign - Mall of America(Image source)

The harm from guns to peoples’ health is hard to deny.  The U.S. leads the world in gun deaths, according to a World Health Organization (WHO) study. Guns claim more than 30,000 lives each year in the U.S., more than five times the number of deaths from illegal drugs each year. While a great deal of media attention focused on the tragic shooting of elementary school children at Newtown, CT.,  the Children’s Defense Fund estimates that 2,391 children have been shot by guns since the beginning of 2013 alone.

Currently, our response to guns and gun policy is one that oscillates between a punitive criminalization of some gun owners and a staunch, Second Amendment defense of other gun owners.  How might society be changed if our approach to guns and gun violence were reframed as a public health issue, like seat belts or smoking?

no smoking sign(Image source)

We’ll explore some of the research on guns and look at some of the ways that activists and documentary filmmakers are contributing to a resistive reframing of gun violence as a public health issue.

Criminalization, Unemployment and Health: Kai Wright, William Gallo and Glenn E. Martin in Conversation

In a recent piece,  “Boxed In: How a Criminal Record Keeps you Unemployed for Life,”  Kai Wright, editorial director at Colorlines and a contributor to The Nation, takes an in-depth look at the impact of a criminal record on future employment.  In our ongoing effort to curate conversations between journalists, academics and activists around social justice issues for broad audiences, we partnered with TechChange and invited Kai Wright, Professor William Gallo and Glenn E. Martin to have a conversation about the connections between criminalization, unemployment and health, moderated by JustPublics@365 Digital Fellow Heidi Knoblauch.


In this extended discussion (1:55), our panel of experts Kai Wright (@Kai_Wright),  William (Bill) Gallo, Professor of Public Health at The Graduate Center, CUNY and Hunter College, and an expert in the health consequences of unemployment, and Glenn E. Martin (@glennEmartin), is vice president of development and public affairs of Fortune Society, a New York-based prisoner re-entry advocacy group, each discuss how journalists, academics and activists approach the same issue from different vantage points but with a shared goal of creating a more just society.

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

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

women in prison(Image source)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

free marissa signs(Image source)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


This post is part of the Monthly Social Justice Topic Series on From Punishment To Public Health (P2PH). If you have any questions, research that you would like to share related to P2PH or are interested in being interviewed for the series, please contact Morgane Richardson at justpublics365@gmail.com 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 justpublics365@gmail.com with the subject line, “Stop-and-Frisk Series.”

From Punishment to Public Health: Our Next Social Justice Topic Series

Today begins our new month-long social justice series called From Punishment to Public Health.  In this series we will explore how public health might offer a more humane and just approach to social ills than the current approach that is based on criminalization.

Overcrowded Prison Source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Prison, Creative Commons Attribution

Is this the best response to social ills?
Source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Prison, Creative Commons Attribution

Since at least the 1970s, the response to drug use has been one that emphasized punishment and criminalization. The punishment framework has shaped the collective response to drug use for the past thirty years, in the US and globally. Catch phrases like “lock ‘em up and throw away the key,” “three strikes and you’re out,” and “let them rot in jail,” have characterized this time period and this attitude toward drug use.

More recently, the reliance on criminalization has been giving way to an approach that is more rooted in a public health. For example, in 2013, US Attorney General proposed moving away from mandatory minimum sentences for drugs. And, as the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (ACA) – colloquially known as “Obamacare” – goes into effect, an estimated 32 million Americans will have new access to drug treatment programs. Outside the US, other countries are moving to legalize drugs (such as Portugal, Uruguay) and closing prisons due to lack of inmates (such as the Netherlands).

How are these policy changes transforming the lives of everyday people? Are public health approaches to the criminalization of drugs really better or do they simply expand control over citizens? Through a variety of knowledge streams (e.g., podcasts, data visualizations, and blog posts) we will host a month-long conversation between academics, activists and journalists about the shift from punishment to public health and if that moves us closer to a more just society. As we did with the stop-and-frisk series, at the close of this series we’ll pull all these resources together in an all-in-one guide that you can download for your own use.

In the coming weeks, we’ll also curate a mix of academics, activists, and journalists talking about how to address this complicated social justice issue.  To open this series, we will feature the following:

The aim of JustPublics@365 is to foster just the innovative work that can foster connections between academics, activists and journalists who are working to address some of the pressing social problems of our time.  From where we sit in the heart of New York City, criminalization is at the top of the list of pressing social problems because of the deleterious effects it has on the democratic life of the city and the nation.

So, we offer this series on Punishment to Public Health as another case study of how we might reimagine scholarly communication for the public good.


Click here for more information about our Monthly Social Justice Topic Series.