Oct 23, 2009

On Ideology

Friday, October 23, 2009 Rota, Spain

Of late, I find that I am increasingly concerned about the degree to which political ideology is dividing us from one another. We all would like a world that works - with justice, a high degree of personal freedom, and a fair distribution of wealth. And yet, from small groups of citizens all the way to the halls of government, our conversations about how to achieve a just world are marked by acrimony and polarization based on our varying ideologies.

Let’s step back a bit and take a look at ideology itself. I would define ideology as a belief system about the nature of political reality. Please read that sentence again before going on.  I assert that reality, as it applies to the world of politics, is chaotic and messy. It is constantly in flux and very hard to capture in words – just like any other part of reality beyond our immediate senses. It is easy and tempting to formulate or embrace beliefs about the nature of reality. We all want to feel that we know what is going on around us. But, from an epistemological standpoint, belief is a rather low order of knowledge.

Being human, we would like to find a way to generalize in such a way to be able to talk about political reality. Here is where we get into trouble. Since we can’t directly perceive the way components in the political sphere interact with one another, we must make generalizations about cause and effect without really being able to verify those causes by direct experience. I have met some younger people who have decided to ignore politics entirely because of the uncertainty (and bad behavior on the part of their elders).

But as citizens, we are called upon from time to time to take actions in the political sphere, at the very least by actively voting. We are forced to choose between candidates or to decide whether or not a particular proposal will move society closer to our ideal. We must make these choices on the basis of far too little information. We read the papers, watch TV, talk to friends and are bombarded by theories about political reality - if we vote for X, it will cause Y to happen. But in reality, it often takes years before the consequences of some political action become apparent.

This is frustrating. It is human to want to understand reality better and paradoxically, the desire to understand can lead us into dependence on ideology – to embrace belief systems about political reality. This is a kind of political religion where we find others who agree with us that something is true although we can’t really see it directly. Political religion has its high priests – authors and commentators who earn a good living making messy reality easier to understand through simplification, generalization, and creating theories of causation. They write books, create slogans, invent formulas for how the world can be saved by rejecting certain political actions, and so forth. The worst part is they don’t limit themselves to suggesting theories on political causation, but move beyond that to suggest that those who believe in “our” particular form of political religion are good and those who don’t are bad. This divides us in a most unhealthy way.

Now, the consumers of this political religion are motivated by the desire to be better citizens and to better understand their world, a really noble motivation that I do not wish to impugn. The alternative to embracing political religion is to be willing to stand in mystery – to accept that we do not know - and yet be constantly attempting to come closer to reality by staying abreast of current events and by studying all kinds of political thought without necessarily believing in any of it. This is difficult to do for most of us. A truly independent thinker will seem a dullard in a debate with an ideologist because the ideologist has developed a system of thinking about his topic and has defended it against all perceived alternative ways of thinking. The independent thinker may in fact have a better grasp of reality, but will not be able to assert it with the force and conviction of the ideologist.

I assert that it is healthy, in a topic as vague as political reality, to be willing to hold a high level of self-doubt. I have always recognized a genuine intellect, not by the force of its convictions, but by the quality of the questions it raises. By seeing the quality of the questions with which the intellect grapples, I get a sense of the breadth of the intellect’s perception – how wide is the horizon for that individual? Having a broad view of reality usually indicates a person’s dedication to learning and grappling with questions without having to draw immediate conclusions. The ideologist is unable to resist the impulse to draw conclusions and in so doing terminates the learning process. I assert that the ideologist is more concerned with having the answers and being right about them than understanding reality. Let me hasten to assure that when I discuss Ideology, I am not discussing Ethics. Folks on different sides of an ideological position will often be coming from the same ethical basis - i.e. we all value a strong family. But the political question of how to create an environment for healthy families can result in wildly different answers, depending on the ideology applied (political belief systems).

Now I suspect that most of my readers, having gotten this far, are by now thoroughly insulted, disgusted, or angry. Politics is a hot topic today and few of us are immune to the heat. So to better illustrate what I am talking about; let’s move to a parallel universe to try to get away from the heat. That universe is economics, specifically the stock market, since that is one place where you can get measurable results from your ability to understand economic reality.

Now the economy is every bit as chaotic and messy as politics. Listening to economists talk, it is pretty clear that they don’t have it all figured out. But let’s limit ourselves to the stock market because there we can get results from our belief systems or lack thereof.

I invest in the market and so every day I read web pages about investing while checking the status of the markets. I find plenty of paid commentators who are eager to explain the complicated workings of the market and make it understandable to my less sophisticated mind. The problem is that, on any given day I can find a commentator who will tell me that the market is going up and another commentator who will tell me that the market is going down. These folks get paid to offer their opinions, but which of them do I follow? Well, some investors find their favorites, I suppose. And then of course, there are lots of theories about how to play the market – market religions we might say. For example, there are those who believe in technical analysis and make all their decisions based on the movements of the daily charts.

Now, in the past few years, I have had some success in the market. I’m not a bold investor, but have enjoyed some nice returns when the market was rising. Of course, anyone can make money when the market is rising. You can apply the goofiest theories around and still make money. The real test comes just before a market crash. As it turns out, I have managed to sell everything just before all the major market downturns. I watched my friends lose big chunks of their net worth during the dot-com debacle. I couldn’t advise them to sell, because I couldn’t articulate exactly why I had decided to sell. To call it a hunch would be to undervalue the process. The fact is that I had been reading and following the markets closely as well as following current events. I wasn’t necessarily believing the commentators, but I was listening to all of them and making my own decisions about the way the market would go. And finally, my gut told me it was time to sell.

Now the reason I point this out is simply to try to use an example of relating to reality without depending on ideology. You can’t aggressively assert why you are acting, but somehow your brain has taken input from many sources and has synthesized a “hunch”.

It is the same in the domain of politics. It is hard to understand political reality with the clarity that one understands the physical reality that is in front of us. When we are surrounded with people who believe in some kind of political religion, it is hard to stand apart and to be willing to not know the answers. But, I assert that we are better served and our nation is better served for us to do exactly that.

In a future essay, I propose to list what I perceive as the burning questions of our day and invite others to add to the list. From this, we might be able to find the basis for some stimulating conversations.

Aug 5, 2009

On Parenting

Santa Cruz, CA August 5, 2009

Knowing this is a sensitive issue for those of us who are present or former parents, I hasten to point out that the following essay is just a collection of some of my ideas, placed here to stimulate further thought on this important topic. I have noted that parenting seems to have fads and fashions - young parents seem to agree on certain principles of parenting without necessarily examining alternatives. I have seen a lot of changes in parenting styles over the last half century and they seem generally to have been an improvement. Parents certainly seem more committed to the task and devote a lot more attention to their offspring. But does all this attention benefit the child? Your mileage may vary.....read on.

Early childhood - From the moment of birth, the child has primitive programming for survival, like all living beings. This need to survive gives rise to the first and most important childhood game - domination. Since children need adults to survive, the ability to control those adults becomes crucial. As the child reaches the first birthday, domination techniques have moved beyond simple crying. Haven't we all seen bored toddlers sitting on the floor creating a fuss just to see if they can move 130 pounds of adult human from the the kitchen to the living room. It gives them a sense of security to feel that they can control their caregivers.
But there are limits to domination. I assert that it is important that parents teach the child the difference between "I need" and "I want". The child must always know that it's survival will be assured, that it is loved and it's parents will always be there. But wanting some brightly colored cheap toy in the supermarket is not survival - and crying or tantrums absolutely will not deliver that toy. After this lesson has been delivered and the tears have dried, it is important that the child receive a large dose of love and touching - but in a way that is not connected with any specific behavior, but simply as a consequence of being alive and being loved. In time, the child learns the difference between survival and wanting things.... a good first step.

Crying and Tantrums - Let's be clear that we are not talking about crying about hunger, diaper pins, gas, skinned knees or any other normal childhood need. Of course children cry. We are talking about dominating and demanding. Crying and tantrums are the first tools a child uses to dominate its environment and so the early parental reaction to this behavior is crucial in shaping the development of the child. At the time the child begins this behavior it is too young to reason with (I assert). We are dealing with primitive rage at being denied something that the child wants. Crying is a powerful tool for the child because, in these busy times, parents are trying to juggle far too many tasks in a single day and the overwhelming impulse is to do something that will get the child to be quiet. But if the child wants something, then hugging and comforting won't stop the crying. Getting the desired object will work of course, but at the price of rewarding behavior that we really don't want to become habitual. Here I am not just talking about the child wanting a toy that is just out of reach, but something that the child really cannot have.

And so, there will be those times when the child is crying or throwing a tantrum when the child will have to be removed from a space where it is annoying adults and placed in a room where it can cry safely all it wants. This is harder on the parents than capitulation, but pays big dividends. It doesn't take many alone-in-a-room crying sessions before the child begins to learn that crying is not it's best tool. And as soon as the child stops crying, touching and loving attention brings its world back into balance.

Discipline - to many this sounds like a dirty word, connoting a sort of rigid Prussian hard-heartedness. To digress a bit, a few years ago when we were sailing, we stopped at a luxury resort in Costa Rica that was hosting a convention of child psychologists. Over cocktails, they were asking, when did the word "OK" come into parenting - as in "I want you to go clean up your room, OK?" The fact is that the parent wants the child to clean the room and the OK part is a lie. It is also a fact that the child probably doesn't want to clean the room because it is having much more fun playing. Since the parents have discarded their inherent authority with the word "OK", it is clear to the child that cleaning the room is, at least for a while, an option - not a requirement.

But the questions from the therapists was why would the parents want to deny their inherent authority with this throwaway word OK? When did it become uncool for parents to be in charge? When did everything come to have to be negotiated?

I would assert that the child desperately needs the parent to be in charge - again based on the need for survival. In the primitive brain, "If they can't control something as small as me, how can they protect me from the world?" Psychologists talk about the need for limits and the lengths that a child will go to to find some limits. When I worked with delinquent youth, I saw first hand the extent that kids will go to get their parents (and society) to control them.

To clear the air a bit so that we can discuss discipline productively, let's create a definition of the word - let's say that that discipline involves having to do something that one doesn't want to do. There are two kinds of discipline: external discipline and self discipline. External discipline is someone else making us do something that we don't want to do. Self discipline is when we make ourselves do something that we don't want to do - like getting up for work the morning after a big party. We all would agree that self discipline is a crucial part of the formula for success. But I assert that until a child has experienced and survived external discipline, there is little possibility for self discipline. With gentle, but firm external discipline, the child discovers that it can do something that it doesn't want to do and then life goes on just fine. It is OK to do something that one doesn't want to do. This is an enormously important skill! As adults, we spend the majority of our time doing things we don't really want to do. We have successfully adjusted to this by just convincing ourselves that we really do want to do what we are doing so that we can reach some desired goal. But under all that, wouldn't we really prefer to wake up when we want, request the breakfast we want, be taken to the beach, and generally be pampered and spoiled all the time. See, we don't even consider that possible! Life taught us about discipline. We need to do that for our children - with love and gently, but also firmly.

As children grow, they begin to set up power struggles - to test their limits (and our commitment to their safety). A basic rule that I lived by as a parent is: if the child sets up a power struggle, the parent must ALWAYS win. Always! Yes, the commotion created by a power struggle could be ended more quickly and quietly by the parent giving in, but that just teaches the child how to dominate the parent more effectively. If the parents defeat the power-struggle-game early in childhood, the child may abandon it entirely - leading to a safe and relatively tranquil adolescence. On the other hand, let a teenager run a power struggle and the results can be truly dangerous. Better to deal with it early. Again, loving reassurance after the struggle is finished is the second part of ALWAYS.

Food Games - This is a game that is primarily created by parents, but children take advantage of it as a way to practice domination. It starts early. When the baby comes off the breast and starts eating solid food, parents notice that they prefer creamed corn to creamed peas and so, wanting the child to be well nourished, they buy more creamed corn. Of course. But at some time, the child is ready to sit at the table with the rest of the family. That is the time when the parents have to stand up as parents. The question, "would you like?" is the invitation to play food games. I assert that there should be no question - just the statement "today we are having...." The child does not get to choose the menu and absolutely does not get to have special foods that the rest of the family are not having. That doesn't mean that their favorites don't get on the menu from time to time - of course they do. But they don't select the menu.
Now the child has a choice - eat what is being served or don't eat what is being served. There will be another meal in 6 to 8 hours. No child ever starved from missing a meal. When the family food is what there is to eat, the child will eat it without games. The less the parents fuss over the child eating, the better. Matter-of-fact comment: "Oh, you don't see anything you want. That's too bad. Well, maybe you'll like breakfast."
Of course, if the child doesn't eat the regular meal, there will be no treats or snacks coming out of the icebox later. Conversely, if the child eats a little of everything, it qualifies for whatever treat the family might have later on. This sounds harsh - but it only lasts for a little while and then the child goes on to eat pretty much what is available and the issue is gone.
What is really harsh is to let the child develop a major food game. I have seen children who have taken this so far that they are socially crippled for life because they only eat a handful of foods. What the parents didn't do is now getting done by the cold, cruel world.

Why don't children want to grow up? - I started grappling with this question when I started to seek a reason for the persistence of drug abuse. I started to realize that people use drugs because their lives don't give them anything to look forward to. To add a little responsibility to that statement, I'll restate - that people have failed to find a purpose for themselves that gets them out of bed in the morning and shapes their daily lives. Since those folks find that life is unrewarding and boring, then drugs make things seem a little better - self medication.

But we are talking about children - and some of them going on into their twenties without finding anything more challenging than sex, drugs, and rock-n-roll. What happens that makes them want to cling to childhood? Why does adulthood seem so unappealing? If we go back to last century, children grew up in small towns. With no mass media, they didn't think of themselves as teenagers. They didn't have their own culture and mores. They went to school and when they left high school, they started acting like adults. They went to work and started their own families. But now there is teen culture, drug culture, surfer culture, punk culture, you-name-it culture that offer a pre-packaged identity kit for those who don't want to grow up.

So what can parents do to take the fear out of adulthood? Well, it starts with chores. Yes, chores! I assert that middle and upper-class young folks today are waited on by their parents, chauffeured to soccer games, ballet classes, etc. without being asked to give anything back. They pass a childhood of ease, make a show of going to school (public schools now being so easy that they are rarely even challenged), Mommy and Daddy pay for college, buy them a BMW and so they arrive at the gates of adulthood with a minimum of effort expended. These young people have gotten to spend quite a lot of time doing what they wanted. They have been essentially parasitic - and awareness of this does little for self confidence or self esteem. Then suddenly we ask them to climb onto the treadmill and become a "consuming unit" - going to work to support their families and starting to make payments on stuff for the rest of their lives. (This could easily become it's own essay). This drastic change is a bit of a shock.

But we were talking about chores. I assert that every child should begin doing chores as soon as possible. When they can walk and work a broom, they get a floor to sweep. Of course, parents know that it is often easier to do the task than to assign it to a child because when it is assigned to a child, the parent has to ensure that the child has the necessary motor skills to succeed, that the child understands the importance of the chore, and that the child knows what successful completion of the chore looks like. Parental supervision is mandatory, especially early. Once a chore is assigned, it must be completed successfully - absolutely! Slipshod adult workers probably learned that they could get away with half-measures by parents who were themselves slipshod in their supervision. While the quality of a completed task may not be quite as good as it would be if done by the parent, obvious faults or errors will need to be corrected gently. Once the chore is satisfactorily completed, thanks and praise are the appropriate reward. Treats and rewards should be reserved for special efforts, not routine chores. Treats can be appropriate as a recognition for being helpful generally - in a way that is not associated with any particular chore. Older children should have an increasing load of routine chores and should get more and more responsibility along with it.

From the parental standpoint, assignment of chores involves 1) clear definition of the task and the standards for satisfactory completion; 2) supervision of the ongoing task (without obvious "hovering") and evaluation of the quality - repetition if necessary; and 3) praise and recognition on completion. No part of this can be skipped. It is no surprise that busy parents prefer to park the children in front of some electronic device instead of involving them in family tasks. But this is abdication of parenthood and the loss of one of the greatest opportunities to really teach them something about life.

Chores have several benefits for children - first, they come to see themselves as contributing members of their families (and parents can help that process by pointing it out). This creates or enhances a sense of self-worth. Secondly, by learning to successfully complete tasks assigned by others to standards of others, children learn to tolerate discipline (that word again) and learn important lessons about completing tasks and working under supervision. To point out that these skills will be used throughout an entire lifetime might be overstating the obvious.

Parents as examples - most of us recognise the most obvious ways that children are influenced by parental example. If we get tattoos, use street slang, use drugs, and talk about burglaries in front of them, then they will probably grow up to be outlaws. If we work hard to support our families, put off current pleasures for future rewards, keep ourselves informed about the world we live in; recycle; all these things will have a positive influence on our children.

But there is another, perhaps more important, example that we can set for our children. And this one directly addresses the question "why don't our children want to grow up?" This one is not so obvious and nobody ever told us how important it would be for our children.

I assert that one of the most important examples we can set, right behind integrity, is to have fun! Yes, to have fun! We are our children's futures. They see that they are going to grow up to be like us. If we are bogged down in problems, struggling with life and getting beat up by it, then why would they want to follow in our footsteps? No, they need to see joy - they need to see love - and they need to see fun! That gives them a future worth living into.

For many of us, that means we'll need to learn something because we aren't particularly having fun at the moment. Yes, that is right. As parents, we get too damned serious about life and it is time to remember that this is it - we can't go back when we are 80 and start having fun. So whatever your circumstances, it is possible without changing anything but your attitude to create a little fun in daily life. Dare to be silly; sing dopey songs; extract every possible element of fun from the virtual cesspool in which you find yourself. And not only do your children benefit, but so do you! Might not be all that bad for the marriage as well, huh?

So the bottom line of this essay is - find the fun in your everyday life and build some fun into your future. No, don't spend the inheritance on a new ski boat - fun is not about stuff and having stuff. Fun is something you do - even more important, fun is something you are! If you are fun, your children will thank you for a fabulous future.

Jun 17, 2009

6) The Third of Three Ideas that could Transform Corrections.....

June 17, 2009 Madrid

Here is the last of the three ideas. For this one, I have to give credit to an old friend from high school, Dr. Ron Needham, who on hearing the first two ideas, gave me the kernel for this third one. I have added to what he suggested and at this point can't distinguish where his ideas left off and mine began. Suffice to say, without his input, this idea never would have happened.

Whereas the previous two ideas are simple and could be implemented without great cost or disruption, this idea requires a complete re-write of the Criminal Justice System - and so the probability of seeing this happen is beyond slim. Nevertheless, it is good sometimes to examine what might be possible in order to give direction to the evolution of the system.

Victim-Based Corrections - a system based on compensation to victims as the basis for incarceration. In this scheme, for every crime there is an identifiable victim. (If no victim can be identified, it isn't a crime. That would eliminate all of the people who self-medicate in order to tolerate their lives - so long as they don't steal a TV to support their medication. This part of the idea merits it's own essay, but let's stay on topic). If there is a victim, then there is a financial cost that can be assessed in order to restore the victim to his/her condition before the crime. The first phase of a criminal trial is the same as it is now - the establishment of guilt. But in the second phase, arguments are heard to establish a dollar amount of compensation required to make the victim "whole" again. In the case of murder, that is likely to be a very large amount.

Once a restitution amount is set, the convicted criminal either is granted probation to allow him/her to pay restitution while working in the community or is sentenced to prison. In the first case, probation remains in effect until restitution is paid and perhaps longer.

In the event the offender is sentenced to prison, he will not be released until the restitution is paid, no matter how long that might take. In the reception facility, he is given the opportunity to apply for work within the prison system. Vocational tests are available to help him evaluate his own skills and to demonstrate them to potential employers (within the system). More on employment in a minute....

I digress to note however that "will not be released" does not necessarily mean permanently living within concrete walls. There is no reason why prisoners who have demonstrated success at their jobs and lives could be transferred to sleep in half-way houses or other forms of independent living as they progress through the program. Now, back to the main theme...

At this point, I illuminate another key element of this plan - the partnership between corrections and business. Almost every prison would be built around a work facility (or multiple work facilities) run for profit by American businesses. But where would all the jobs come from? Well, most of them would come home from Mexico, China, Thailand, etc. where they had previously been "outsourced". The prisoners would earn less than they would earn in a comparable job outside the prison in order to make the program attractive to businesses. But the earnings would still be sufficient to make good progress on the restitution account. The discussion of how to make this attractive to business while still benefiting the inmates would create a very long essay on it's own, but for today let's just touch on it lightly.

The inmates, once "hired", move into residence into the facility attached to their work location. They are oriented and begin working. But before they can put money into their restitution accounts, they have to pay their room and board! (Yes, the prison system is intended to be "revenue-neutral"!) And next, they have to pay child support for any children that they may have left behind them. And then finally, money goes into their restitution account. Of course, there are other ways that they may chose to use their money. Educational programs would be available in the evening should they wish to improve their skills. By so doing, they could ultimately get themselves promoted and thereby earn more money in the long run.

So now we have a link between successful employment and ultimately being released through payment of restitution. The most important purpose of this is to finally provide socialization to a class of individuals who do not know how to function as non-Outlaws or who have chosen not to function as non-Outlaws. The inmates would have to get themselves up every morning, report to work, and deal with the kind of frustrations that work produces - boredom, work politics, acceptance of the authority of those whom one may not respect, etc. Thus far in their lives, they have not been able to do these things. They may be profoundly uneducated and may need their night school to qualify for anything more than menial work. Outside prison, Outlaw activity was far more attractive, but now they must actually confront and become successful at behavior that is actually functional.

In short, they are forced to behave in a way that would work for them when they are free. It may not be easy for them. Their employers are free to fire, demote, or otherwise discipline the workers just as they would outside the prison. If fired, they have to go back to the reception facility and apply for another job. They can also be returned to the reception facility for demonstrating the kind of behavior now seen conventional prisons - aggressive behavior toward other inmates or staff or any of a number of Outlaw behaviors.

Another benefit: when the inmate finally pays off his restitution account, he has already got an employment track record and references. He might chose to remain with his current employer, but as a free person now. Otherwise, he can seek another job, but he knows how to do it and knows how to function in a work environment. Those with limited contact with Outlaws may not appreciate how hard it is for them to function in a conventional setting.

For those who have some experience with our current system, you know that there are a certain number of hard cases who want nothing more than to get some new tattoos, lift weights, and play prison games generally. Fine, for those types there would be maximum security prisons like California's Pelican Bay facility. There they can go and act like prison goons all day long. However, they make no progress on their restitution accounts and every day they are going deeper into debt on their room and board. And so, it is unlikely that they will be seen on the streets anytime in the foreseeable future. And that is how it should be. These are people who have chosen antisocial behavior as a way of life.

But for the rest of the inmate population, without the pressure from the goons, the gang activity goes away. The only kind of behavior that gets an inmate released is functional behavior, work, and payment of restitution debt. Suddenly inmates are receptive to counselling and education. It could be possible in the last portion of an inmate's residence to have his family join him in a special family housing area, thereby making the entire family available for services (at a cost, of course).

There are many more possibilities than I have sketched out here, but at the very least we are talking about a prison system that only releases inmates who have demonstrated their ability to function as a non-Outlaw and who have actual job skills, leading to a much higher probability of social success. In addition, the cost of operating prisons would be less due to the requirement for inmates to pay for services provided by the system. Business would benefit by having a work force available in the US and a steady stream of trained employees on a career path. Unions, in industries typically unionized like the Electricians' Union, could provide training programs within the institution to prepare future union members.

And the fact that victims are compensated for their losses adds a whole new dimension to the idea of Criminal Justice. I realize that I have asked you to put on rose-colored glasses for this conversation, but so did Martin Luther King 40 years ago, and look who is our president!

Jun 16, 2009

5) The Second of Three Ideas that could Transform Corrections...

June 16, 2009 Madrid
If you have time, I recommend reading the first 3 short essays as background for this essay. But I will try to make it self-contained for the busy reader.

We've already discussed the enormous costs of running the correctional system and the relatively poor success that we get for our money. This article deals with an idea for increasing the effectiveness of our prisons in terms of actual rehabilitation.

Keeping Score - you can't get a result if you don't measure for it. Actual rehabilitation in prisons is such a hopeless subject that the professionals don't really want to discuss it. Wardens running our prisons are concerned with 1) staying inside the budget; 2) keeping staff and inmates from getting hurt; and 3) staying out of the newspapers. Changing the inmates values and goals is not a part of the plan - it is considered impossible, or nearly so.

It must be impossible; after all, didn't we make the effort back in the 70's and 80's when we threw our most powerful behavior altering tool, psychology, into the prison system. And psychology simply didn't make the difference that we had hoped for. So with shrinking budgets and ever more new prisons to build, we fell back to mere "warehousing" of prisoners - just holding them off the streets so that they couldn't commit crimes.

Once "warehousing" became the dominant operating mode, then other changes emerged from that (or perhaps just returned to an earlier mode used in the days before psychology was tried). To prevent staff injuries, the relationship between staff and inmates became more formal and much more separate. As staff became more and more established as guards rather than counselors, then the two distinct cultures within the prison became hardened - each with a negative definition of the other.

In the staff culture, the older guards trained the newer ones to be wary of the convicts and promoted the notion that "there is nothing that can be done for these people". Because staff were no longer involved in counseling, their educational requirements were reduced along with their pay (given the budget crises). As a result, the staff culture became a bit less idealistic. Being a guard was a job, not a calling.

In the inmate culture, the guards just became the unsmiling face of the non-Outlaw culture. As Outlaws will do, the inmates hoarded every injustice as proof of the inherent antagonism of the non-Outlaw culture. The result has been prisons where the Outlaws primarily relate to other Outlaws. Healthy interaction between staff and Outlaws became the exception.

Now let's get to the heart of the second idea: we don't really measure effectively the success and failure rate of each of our institutions. At the national level, we collect data on individual criminals and their arrests. This is done by the Bureau of Justice Statistics. There has been an effort to continually improve this record keeping, especially since the data has been computerized. It would not be all that hard to add a few new fields to the database and track the institutions where the criminal has spent time.

The reason for doing this would be to be able to rank all the correctional institutions in the nation in order of their success in releasing inmates who remain free of arrests. If such a list were published every six months, each of the wardens could see the comparative effectiveness of their own institutions. Let's imagine that there is some prison in Huntsville, Alabama that happens to be Number One in effectiveness. The other wardens would have to ask, "What are they doing that we aren't doing?" That is a question that isn't being asked today!

I assert that effectiveness in treating Outlaws will turn out to be based on the quality of non-Outlaw relationships available to the Outlaw as well as the availability of socialization to teach the Outlaws how to function in the non-Outlaw society. But once we start keeping accurate measurements of success, we may all be surprised at what works. Until we have the measurements, we are really just guessing.

The beauty of this idea is that it doesn't really cost very much. It doesn't add new bureaucracy. We already collect data - there would be a little clerical effort involved in reporting what inmates are in what institutions, but the amount of time required is fairly trivial. This is the heart of this second idea.

Now the correctional professionals reading this will at this point be eager to point out that any given inmate will probably spend time in a variety of institutions during his criminal career. It can legitimately be questioned how responsibility for the criminal's success or failure could be fairly apportioned between the various institutions.

Further, there are a variety of types of institutions ranging from open forestry camps to maximum security prisons. The forestry camps get relatively low-risk inmates, perhaps convicted of lesser crimes. The maximum security prisons get the members of prison gangs, violent and unsocialized individuals, and inmates convicted of serious crimes. How can a maximum security prison be forced to compete fairly with a forestry camp? The maximum security prison would expect a much higher failure rate given the pathology of it's inmates.

These two problems illustrate the difficulty of fairly comparing the effectiveness of different institutions. Difficult, but not a sufficient reason to abandon the idea. I assert that an enterprising graduate student in criminal statistics might very well take on as a PhD. project the development of an algorithm that would apportion responsibilty to each of the institutions that an inmate passes through. And it would clearly be necessary to establish classes of institutions so that maximum security prisons are fairly compared with other maximum security prisons and not with forestry camps. The algorithms used could be continually improved over time, but of course would need to be insulated to ensure that they are not subject to political pressures.

I remember as an undergraduate in Sociology, the Western Electric Study in which it was discovered that the mere act of measurement alters the behavior of an institution. How can we go on throwing 80 BILLION dollars a year at a system for which we have no measurement of effectiveness?

Jun 14, 2009

4) The First of Three Ideas that could Transform Corrections....

June 15, 2009 Madrid
I recommend reading the three previous essays for background if you have time. But given the fast pace of modern life, I'll try to make this essay stand on it's own legs.

The first of the Three Ideas to Transform Corrections deals with improving the success rate of inmates who have finally "graduated" back onto the streets. Currently 65 to 70 percent of them are re-arrested and go back into the criminal justice system. Given the high cost of incarceration, that is just not an acceptable level of success.

Before we get to a proposed solution, let's take a closer look at the problem. Imagine Alonzo, a fictional 29 year old inmate who has been in and out of institutions since adolescence. He is now being released on parole after 5 years inside. Alonzo completed his high school equivalency while in prison and took a variety of vocational courses. He has the idea that he will at least "try" to stay out this time.

He leaves prison with $200 in cash and a bus ticket to Los Angeles, his home town, where he will meet his Parole Officer. On the way home, he spends $10 on food. On arrival in LA, he finds a room in a run-down neighborhood. By taking a weekly rate, he only spends $10 a night, but he has to pay for the week in advance. By the time he pays that and has dinner, he has $110 left in his pocket.

Alonzo never had friends who weren't Outlaws. Being lonely, he looks a few of them up. They, knowing how little money he has, immediately offer some ideas for revenue. Maybe a drug dealer offers to "front" him some drugs to get started selling or other scams may be offered. Certainly his release will merit some celebration - drinking and drugs being a part of that. This will probably be the most fun he has had in years. The chances are nearly 100% that, by the morning of his second day of freedom, he will have committed some kind of crime. If Alonzo is a member of a street gang or a prison gang, his option to avoid Outlaw behavior will be even more limited.

Now he has to report to his Parole Officer. He goes to the office and waits his turn. Eventually he meets the officer who asks a lot of questions about where he will live and work. The officer will probably provide some written resources for employment, counseling, and lodging. However, the officer has probably around 300 cases and is far too busy to be a counselor or mentor. The parole officer spends the most time on "violations", either dealing with clients who have been re-arrested or writing court reports.

So now Alonzo has to try to find employment. Having been inside for five years, he is very self-conscious in the non-Outlaw world. He can feel the disapproval from secretaries and others who know that he is an ex-con. In fact, he feels that they can tell his status just by looking at him. And the street-wise people actually can.

At this point we leave our fictional Alonzo at the point of making a decision. Does he face the fear, rejection, and wariness of the non-Outlaw world in order to get a menial job that he finds totally uninteresting and that pays only enough for bare survival? Or does he return to his old friends and join in their scams for quick cash and a lifestyle he finds comfortable?

Although some released inmates in the real world may have more available resources and different circumstances, our fictional Alonzo illustrates the kinds of all-too-typical challenges faced by a released convict. So now it is time for the First Idea:

ConAnon - a voluntary 12-step program for released inmates run totally by successful, employed ex-cons for the benefit of themselves and newly released inmates. Employed ex-cons meet at least once a week and sponsor "new graduates" through the difficult transition into non-Outlaw life. The sponsors know very well what the new guy is going through - all the temptations from the "homeboys", the pressure from gangs, and the fear of the unknown in the non-Outlaw world. There is an old saying, "You can't con a con". The sponsors are not going to buy into any lame excuses.

Each ConAnon chapter would need a public meeting room - there are many of these available for the various other "anons". This would be the only expense of the program. They would meet weekly or more often as they decide. The meetings are based on established 12-step principles and stress personal responsibility and supporting one another to break the addiction to the Outlaw lifestyle. The employed cons might be able to provide an introduction to employment opportunities where they themselves work and could mentor their new guys right into a job. The employers would have the comfort of knowing that their new employee has an extra set of eyes following him all day.

Parole Officers could recommend ConAnon for new releases and provide a schedule for the meetings, but there would be no direct communication between ConAnon and the Parole Office. For ex-cons to trust ConAnon, they would have to able to feel that they could speak honestly and openly about what is happening with them.

For the first time, released inmates would actually have a support group for non-Outlaw behavior. I am not aware of any other institution or organization that provides this service although certainly there must be something in some localities.

To establish such a 12-step program would require recruitment of leadership -successful ex-cons who are willing to commit themselves to this challenge. National attention could be raised by the involvement of celebrity ex-cons from the worlds of music and television. When a core group of successful ex-cons is found, a pilot chapter would be formed and the basic 12-step principles modified for the needs of this group. Once the chapter is established, ConAnon needs to establish a national center, recruit leaders for chapters all over the country, and print/distribute written materials to support the chapters. This phase of organization will require funding through grants and the national headquarters will require secure ongoing funding. Alcoholics Anonymous could provide a model for the organization.

This idea could be developed into a much longer essay but my intention is to sow the seed, not to complete the idea. It can be seen that this would be an inexpensive and effective way to reduce the failure rate for released inmates. What is needed now is a group of ex-cons willing to take the idea and make it happen in their own community.....

Jun 8, 2009

3) Crime and Corrections - what is the problem?

June 9, 2009 Rota, Spain

Corrections - the running of prison systems - talking about this is one of those "hopeless" topics that leaves the average citizen with eyes glazed over within the first 5 minuntes. We all sort of know that the prison system is not a pleasant place to live; that it is brutal and violent; that it is dominated by prison gangs; that it is a dangerous environment for guards as well as prisoners; that it rarely succeeds in rehabilitating the prisoners; and that it is very expensive to operate.

Those shared understandings are pretty close to the mark. Maybe just a few numbers will help to put things further into focus.
1) I have read that one out of every 165 Americans are in some kind of confinement.
2) In 2002, the reported annueal cost of the prison system was 60 BILLION dollars. I'm not sure that included the costs of probation departments or the criminal court system. It certainly doesn't include the costs of crime to its victims. Today, I believe the annual costs exceed 80 BILLION!
3) In 2002, 67% of released prisoners were rearrested, not exactly a triumph for this very expensive system...and I fear this number may be on the low side.

Historically, there have been periodic attempts to improve prison conditions and to make them more effective. During the 1960's and 1970's, there was money available for new methods in corrections and some very dedicated professionals attempted to use what has thus far been the strongest medicine for dysfunctional behavior - psychology.

A variety of techniques were introduced into prisons - group therapy and individual counselling were made available. Staff sensitivity training was added in many facilities. Alas, in the 1980's and 1990's, budgets became tighter and there were ever more prisoners as "get tough on crime" legislation gave the courts less freedom to bypass incarceration. Building new prisons ate up operating funds and the psychological programs were phased out in place of a new philosophy of "warehousing".

But what really doomed the psychological programs was that statistically they failed to convince that they had any impact. I worked in corrections during this era and there was a lot of "feel-good" activity - we really felt that we were making a difference. We felt that we had connected with our clients. But they continued to fail and get rearrested.

What went wrong? I think the psychological approach works when an individual is in distress and seeks relief. Unfortunately Outlaws have made a successful adaptation to their environment and are not really in distress. They participated eagerly in the psychological programs - perhaps believing it might be a way to qualify for earlier release. Certainly, some of them came away with new insights into their own behavior. But what I now see, few of them came away with the confidence and ability to avoid the Outlaw lifestyle for the rest of their lives. The power of that lifestyle and the difficulty of re-entering a non-Outlaw world where they are seen as dangerous and untrustworthy usually proves definitive. In the next essay, I will address that difficult transition in more depth.

But, after psychology had it's run and failed to convince, the prisons fell back to "warehousing" prisoners - trying to keep them safe and secure while keeping them off the streets. The amount of "safe and secure" that could be provided was linked to the budget and as overcrowding and understaffing became the norm, things were not all that "safe and secure". Wardens saw that what the public demanded of them was that they 1) stay in the budget; and 2) stay out of the newspapers.

Rehabilitation became seen as hopeless, so internal policies shifted towards minimal contact between staff and inmates, to keep staff from getting "conned" or injured. The inmate now found himself in an environment where he had 100% Outlaw contacts.

And the hope for rehabilition and permanent change of Outlaw behavior seems just as remote as it has ever been. It's true that Outlaws eventually outgrow prisons. The fact of aging seems to be the most effective factor causing prisoners to stop committing crimes. They get to where they just don't want to go back "inside" and find some accomodation where they can live without being arrested. But there seems to be no shortage of the young, aggressive inmates.

So the question we raised in the beginning - what is the problem? Well, we're spending a fortune on corrections and it isn't doing much correcting. Prisoners who are locked up don't commit crimes while in prison - that is the only saving grace for the system. If we could lock them all up indefinitely, well then I guess that would pretty well handle the crime problem. But given the size of our underclass and the number of Outlaws, that is beyond our budget many times over - to say nothing of the humanitarian issues.

And so, are prisons destined to forever be a hopeless topic? Is there no hope? Well, maybe. The next essays will contain some ideas for increasing the effectiveness of the existing system.

Jun 5, 2009

2) Crime - Why do they do it?

June 5, 2009 Rota, Spain
When I was an undergraduate, I took all the Criminology courses that were offered. At that time there was a debate about the causes of crime and I don't even remember all the details now, but it was all about the impact of genetics and environment. There was a strong theme that lack of jobs, breakdown of the family, drugs and alcohol, the existence of a large permanent underclass, and other similar factors were the primary causal factors of crime.

I don't disagree with all of that, but after working with criminals, I found that there was another factor that I had never heard mentioned that was perhaps the most powerful of all. I am referring to the criminal subculture. I will call these folks "Outlaws".

Being an Outlaw is a way of life. It is a sometimes glamorous alternative lifestyle that is open and always recruiting. It provides emotional and psychological support for its members. Membership is open to any and all who support the basic rules and beliefs of the subculture. Here is a quick list as they popped into my mind:
1) Outlaws never "snitch" - they don't talk to police or other non-outlaws.
2) Outlaws are smarter because they don't have to work 9 to 5 jobs for lousy pay.
3) Outlaws help other outlaws when possible. There is an "us-against-them" element.
4) Outlaws know how to do time - jail is just another place to be and one's ability to do time well earns respect.
5) The Outlaw life is more glamorous. (There is a certain selective amnesia at work here because a holding cell on Saturday night lacks glamour. So do gang rapes in prison). Nowadays, Outlaws are supported in this belief by the fact that non-outlaws imitate their fashions (slang, backwards baseball caps, baggy clothes, etc.)
6)Outlaws accept very marginal individuals - borderline retarded, poorly socialized, and of course, sociopaths and psychopaths. Individual Outlaws may not let the marginal members into their inner circles, but they relate to them as fellow Outlaws.
7) Outlaws are justified in their actions against the larger society because of all of the many corruptions and injustices of the larger society. They can recite a litany of these.

Outlaws of course are more visible in lower socio-economic communities - virtually all the young people in poor neighborhoods know who are the dealers, the gangsters, etc. The young there have to go to considerable lengths to avoid getting caught up in the Outlaw world. Gangs routinely harass book-carrying minority kids - and the weaker of those often join a gang to stop the harassment and to get "backup".

In middle-class communities, Outlaws are virtually invisible but still present. Unhappy middle-class youths have no trouble finding Outlaw companions. If they are angry at their families, drug use is a quick introduction to the Outlaw world. Not working and staying high all day finds them lots of Outlaw company. Supporting a drug habit will quickly lead to criminal activity.

In addition to the active Outlaws, there are a lot of other supporters of the Outlaw lifestyle. Family members and female companions may avoid overt criminal activity, but still support many of the basic beliefs of the Outlaw subculture and choose to relate mostly to Outlaws.

When I was working with delinquents, I read a book that had a profound influence on the way I perceived my clients. It was "Manchild in the Promised Land" by Claude Brown. Having grown up in a middle-class home with little Outlaw contact, I always thought that going to jail was about the worst thing that could happen. It never ocurred to me that some people would chose to go to jail for a variety of reasons, none of which were valid to me: to add to their prestige with other Outlaws; to join a group of "homeboys" on the inside; to avoid some kind of danger on the streets; etc. Another fabulous source for background on Outlaws is the movie "American Me" starring Edward James Olmos, one of my personal heros. This movie, still in rental stores, is an accurate portrayal of life in prison and the difficulty of making a transition back into non-Outlaw life.

Once I realized how little understanding I had for this subculture, I began to seriously investigate it. And that led to an awareness of the degree to which our correctional institutions have failed to fully appreciate the power of the Outlaw culture in the lives of the prisoners whom they hoped to rehabilitate.

During the 1960's and 1970's, there was plenty of money for corrections and we threw at the problem of crime the most powerful tool we knew at the time for modifying disfunctional behavior - psychotherapy. And it was a miserable failure. The Outlaws ran a huge con on the therapists and the counsellors. The Outlaws didn't need to plan that; they were just being themselves and following their own values. Perhaps it isn't fair to say so, but to me it seems that the most effective part of psychotherapy is the price tag. At $100 per hour, clients take their behavior and thinking very seriously. If it were free, I wonder if it would have the same effect. I'm afraid it is probably most effective on the profoundly unhappy person. And Outlaws do not fall into that category. They have found an adjustment that allows them to function. It is hard for them to imagine changing lifestyles.

From the standpoint of corrections, that is the most difficult part. Corrections deals with individuals who are established in the Outlaw subculture and, while incarcerated, are living in a 100% Outlaw environment. Corrections asks the outlaw to turn his back on his Outlaw associates; to enter an alien world where he is poorly socialized to function - the world of non-outlaws; and to try to find a job in that world - which is thoroughly prejudiced against him. The Outlaw commonly has nowhere to turn; no non-outlaw friends for support; poor social skills after having been out of circulation for so long; and the fear that everyone who looks at him can see him as a prisoner. It is no surprise that the failure rate is above 70%.

Today the Outlaw culture is as strong as ever - perhaps moreso in that many elements of Outlaw culture have become glamorous - hip-hop music, gangsta rap, baggy clothes are a part of non-outlaw youth culture. If parents knew the sources of some of these strange clothing fads, they might not be so quick to buy them for junior.

As a digression, I have always held that one of the main reasons for drug use is that individuals don't really have a future that they are looking forward to. Young people may not really want to grow up to be their parents - it is not a failing of the parents, but of our culture that has become so materialistic that the future looks so much like collecting and maintaining "stuff" and making the payments on it all. And the individual is reduced to being a "consuming unit". Young people who can't wait to get up in the morning because they are pursuing a dream are not at risk for drugs or crime.

I have necessarily overgeneralized in this essay. It could easily have been a book. I am trying to establish a foundation for a series of essays on things that we can do to make the correctional industry work better. Stay tuned....

1) Welcome to my essays...

June 5, 2009 Rota, Spain
I've been meaning to start this blog for a long time because I've acquired some ideas over the years that I really need to get into circulation, especially in the area of criminology. Having spent years working in corrections and later serving on the Board of Prison Possibilities, Inc., I've kept my thinking focused on the seemingly impossible challenges of our correctional system.

I have three ideas that could transform corrections as we know it. Best of all, the first two of them cost almost nothing, do not require additions to government agencies (or almost none) and the cost to the taxpayer would be minimal. But I will get to those ideas in due course.

First I just want to welcome you and give you a little of my qualifications, humble as they might be. My education is a Bachelor of Arts from the University of California at Riverside followed by a year of law school. So I am hardly an academic. In fact, in the essays that follow I do not intend to be academically rigorous. My interest is to inspire and to sow the seeds of new ideas not yet current. To do that, I need to keep it short and readable. Those who find value in my ideas can easily enough pursue the further ramifications. Those who wish to invalidate me will find it easy enough. Then they can move on to invalidate someone else - no point in wasting their time with me.

My real education, at least for the topic of corrections, came to me courtesy of countless young men who I came to know in the Juvenile Justice System during the 20 years that I worked for the Los Angeles County Probation Department. Being less sophisticated and more open than they would be after they reached adult prisons, I found that they would open themselves to me if I could resist being judgemental and "preaching" to them. In many cases, they had never had the chance to talk deeply with an adult and generously shared their experiences.

Some of them actually made it out of the system - one, the former leader of a black street gang, actually made it through law school. The ideas that I will share with you are based on what I learned from them. These ideas differ from what I learned in my Criminology classes, which is why I feel the need to express them.