IRAA 3.0: Second Look Review for Adults

Today I am testifying on behalf of the Second Look Amendment Act of 2019, sometimes dubbed IRAA 3.0. The initial IRAA, the Incarceration Amendment Act, was designed to provide post-sentencing review to those who committed crimes as juveniles and were given life or near-life sentences. IRAA 2.0 extended eligibility and clarified some issues in the original bill, and the current incarnation is designed to provide that same post-sentencing review to those convicted of crimes from 18-25 years old.

I represent the Georgetown Pivot Program—a reentry program based at Georgetown University that began last year. I am also a DC resident, residing in Ward 4, and I support the Second Look Amendment Act.

No discussion of DC sentencing review can proceed without a few basic facts:

  1. The US has the highest incarceration rate in the world. We have less than 5% of the world’s population and more than 20% of the world’s prisoners.[1]
  2. Most of the march towards mass incarceration is driven by state-level policies rather than federal law. 83% of prisoners are incarcerated in state prisons and local jails.[2]
  3. DC has the highest incarceration rate of any state or territory in the US: yes, we have a higher incarceration rate than Louisiana, Oklahoma, Mississippi, or Georgia. When it comes to imprisoning our citizens, DC is #1.[3]
  4. The DC Council has repeatedly chosen policies that enhance sentences in a way that increases the number of our fellow citizens who are incarcerated, despite evidence that this is not making DC’s residents any safer. At the current incarceration rates, there is ample evidence that reducing sentencing at the margin would decrease crime.[4]
  5. Today, our crime rate is near its fifty-five year low—and a small recent uptick should not be cause to repeat the disastrous policies of the 70s, 80s, and 90s that got us our #1 status.
  6. Instead, we should work to reduce sentences across the board—we must become significantly less punitive or else continue to lose our fellow citizens to the Federal Bureau of Prisons.[5]
  7. The Second Look bill currently being considered does this in a very small way. Its greatest weakness is that it countenances post-sentencing modifications ONLY for those whose crimes were committed before the age of 25, on the theory that the young adult brain is still developing. However, we really ought to offer post-sentencing modifications for everyone regardless of age since we are assessing rehabilitation, not the degree of culpability.[6]
  8. The American Law Institute, an association of law faculty that maintain and amend the Model Penal Code, updated the MPC with Second Look post-sentencing review in 2017 in light of the inadequacies of parole board reviews. It behooves us to follow them, at least for those offenders who were 18-25 years old at the time of their offence.[7]
  9. A Second Look is an evaluation of rehabilitation: it gives us an opportunity to live up to the ideal of prisons as correctional rather than merely retributive. Punishment is—and must be—predicated on the idea that the offender, like the victim, is a member of our community who will have the opportunity to be restored to full membership.

At the Pivot Program we have 15 Pivot Fellows studying entrepreneurship alongside a traditional liberal arts curriculum, including two IRAA 1.0 clients. Through my work with the Georgetown Prisons and Justice Initiative, the Prison Scholars Program, and the Paralegal Program I’ve had the opportunity to work with several IRAA 1.0 clients, as well as many who would qualify for post-sentencing review under the Second Look legislation.

We are incredibly lucky to have started our programs at around the same time that the IRAA clients were returning to DC—and I can report that our programs both inside and outside the Jail are desperate for more participants like the ones that IRAA has granted us. 

Kareem McCraney, Charles Fantroy, Tyrone Walker, Halim Flowers, Troy Burner, Mustafa Zulu, and Momolu Stewart: I have been working with incarcerated students for almost a decade and these are among the best students I have taught in all that time. But we are just as excited to work with students who would qualify  for review under the Second Look Act. In particular I would highlight the current mentors on the Young Men Emerging unit at DC’s Correctional Treatment Facility: Joel Caston and Michael Woody.

Michael Woody and Joel Caston with Savannah Sellers

These men seem exceptional to all who meet them, and they are truly excellent students and teachers. But the truth is that there hundreds more like them among our fellow citizens imprisoned in the FBOP—men and women whose talents are currently unavailable to us here in the District, and slated to be wasted for decades longer, because they received very long sentences for crimes committed after their 18th birthday, yet while they were still too young to have the full cognitive capacities of adulthood.

Pivot Challenges and Needs

I’d like to share sixteen success stories from the Pivot Program, of the Pivot Fellows who have found excellent internships and developed their writing and reasoning skills alongside their new ventures. There will be plenty of time for that when the cohort has finished, and I look forward to sharing that data and those narratives with the relevant committees. 

Charles Fantroy and Tyrone Walker

Instead, today, I want to focus on one of our failures, one of our successes, and the lessons we have learned. Let me start with a failure: Charles Fantroy. Charles was one of the initial round of IRAA 1.0 clients who received excellent representation from James Ziegler and was released in January. Charles had attended Georgetown classes at the DC Jail (CTF) and received glowing endorsements from our faculty, including from me. He has great promise as an author and filmmaker, and we had every hope that he would build a new venture out of those talents and interests.

However, his release plan involved moving in with his brother. The Fantroy family grew up on Alabama Avenue in Southeast DC, but around the turn of the millennium they found themselves pushed out of the District and into Maryland: Severn and Glen Burnie. Charles received a DC Identification Card from MORCA and so was able to access our program, but his commute from Severn was arduous, expensive, and he was frequently late. After only a month-and-a-half, Charles decided that the best way for him to manage his reentry was to leave the Pivot Program and take permanent, unsubsidized employment on the night shift with a plumbing supply company. This is in a sense a victory for workforce development programs like Project Empowerment, but for Pivot it feels like a failure: he was unable to complete the program of study or move on to full-time employment in his film making internship. His Georgetown credentials and personal connections were enough to secure him work in a warehouse—important work to be sure, but an under-utilization of scarce human capital. While we are happy for him, I continue to believe that his talent and drive are being undervalued because of his record.

Now let me say a few brief words about one of our successes, who is testifying today on his own behalf. Tyrone Walker was released only a month prior to Charles Fantroy, also as a result of IRAA 1.0, and came to join our program soon afterwards. He was also a student of mine inside of CTF, and a mentor on YME. Like Chalres, he deserved and received my highest endorsement at post sentencing review and was released soon afterwards. With support from his sister and daughter he has been able to maintain a position as one of our program’s stars, including in his internship today at the Justice Policy Institute. Their families also have much in common: many members of the Walker family were also displaced to Maryland in the years since he went to prison, and Tyrone also faces significant housing insecurity while he seeks his own home in the District. Only a few things distinguish them: Tyrone was just a tad luckier, just a small bit better-equipped to handle reentry and has slightly better-resourced family members. Returning citizens should not have to depend so much on luck and family capital for their success.

Tyrone now has considerable experience guiding returning citizens in their first days and weeks after release, but I believe that the return from prison should not be something that the best-of-the-best clients only succeeds at half the time. When the program ends I expect to see a feeding frenzy of recruiters in both the profit and non-profit sectors pursuing him as an unsubsidized employee. We need an army of men (and women!) like Tyrone to support each returning citizen, not just from IRAA and Second Look but for ordinary cases as well.

Drawing from that experience, I want to point to three challenges that will continue to plague returning citizens in DC, whether from IRAA-style post-sentencing reviews or the 5,000 citizens returning to the District every year:

  1. Returning citizens still face significant obstacles to employment for crimes that are unrelated to the types of work they pursue. The stigma of incarceration is still far too great, and the best evidence suggests that merely “banning the box” without other supports extends this stigma to all young Black and Latino men. Thus we simply MUST find ways to create fewer returning citizens by incarcerating fewer of our fellow citizens in the first place, and to create positive employment signals for returning citizens that will combat this stigma. 
  2. Housing insecurity is a major problem for returning citizens generally—and this has hit the Pivot Program in predictable ways, with several promising fellows losing significant class and internship time as formerly-secure housing situations became unsettled. The Pivot Fellows were DC residents before they were shipped off to the Federal Bureau of Prisons but they have returned to a rapidly and severely gentrifying city. Often their reentry plans require them to reside with family members who have left the District in the intervening years—and this effectively outsources our obligations to Virginia and Maryland. Allowing former DC residents to secure residency status through MORCA so that they can continue to access DC’s reentry programs while temporarily residing outside of the District is the least we can do for them. As I have tried to show, we otherwise risk losing some extraordinary human capital to other localities.
  3. Finally, our program is highly dependent on the $10/hr subsidized training wage from DC DOES which supports both the Pivot Fellows’ education and work experience. The training wage is designed to be unpalatably low so as to incentive the search for full-time unsubsidized employment, which isn’t fully compatible with our program’s goal of keeping Pivot fellows engaged over the whole ten month program. At Georgetown we subsidize these stipends to raise the effective hourly rate to $15/hour. It would be helpful to our work if they were able to cover a living wage either as a base rate or as an incentive bonus for consistent performance. While we are happy to subsidize the DC DOES stipend in this cohort,  continuing to do so is a significant private philanthropy burden that will hamper our ability to scale. If DC is serious about raising the minimum wage, then training wages like those offered by Pivot and Project Empowerment must rise as well.

DC is in an enviable position: we are poised to do the right thing for all our fellow citizens. We should pass Second Look, end a significant injustice, and reap the dividends. Thank you for your time.

Footnotes (aka The Receipts)


[1] Peter Wagner and Alison Walsh, States of Incarceration: The Global Context 2016, available at https://www.prisonpolicy.org/global/2016.html

[2] Wendy Sawyer and Peter Wagner, Mass Incarceration: The Whole Pie 2019, available at https://www.prisonpolicy.org/reports/pie2019.html

[3] Peter Wagner and Alison Walsh, States of Incarceration: The Global Context 2016, available at https://www.prisonpolicy.org/global/2016.html

[4] James Forman Jr., Locking Up Our Own: Crime and Punishment in Black America. (New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2017) and Daniel Roodman, The Impacts of Incarceration on Crime, Open Philanthropy Project 2017, available at: https://www.openphilanthropy.org/files/Focus_Areas/Criminal_Justice_Reform/The_impacts_of_incarceration_on_crime_10.pdf

[5] Urban Institute, A Matter of Time, available at: http://apps.urban.org/features/long-prison-terms/a_matter_of_time_print_version.pdf

[6] Gideon Yaffe, The Age of Culpability: Children and the Nature of Criminal Responsibility. (Cambridge: Oxford University Press, 2018)

[7] Richard Frase, Second Look Provisions in the Proposed Model Penal Code Revisions, 21 Fed. Sentencing R. 194 (2009), available at http://scholarship.law.umn.edu/faculty_articles/522 and Meghan J. Ryan, Taking Another Look at Second-Look Sentencing, 81 Brook. L. Rev. (2015). Available at: http://brooklynworks.brooklaw.edu/blr/vol81/iss1/4

Provoking pedagogically-effective discussion in college courses, with an example using Danielle Allen’s Cuz

Today is the first day of classes in my seventeenth year of teaching. I have taught a lot over those years–sometimes as much as a 5/5/1 (5 courses in Fall, 5 in Spring, and one over the summer.) My sense from that time is that the value of a philosophy course is largely not derived from excellent lectures on my part–but rather from an engaged seminar discussion. This is sometimes called “Socratic” but I happen to think that Socrates provided a terrible model for contemporary faculty.

Still, I think students learn more from what they do and say and write in the classroom than from what I do, say, and write. The kind of reading, note-taking, and preparation I do to give a lecture helps me understand material deeply–and it’s precisely that kind of reading and preparation that I want my students to cultivate themselves. In that spirit, I have developed a kind of “in-class” presentation which is both how I think of my own best classes, and also allows students to easily step into the role of “guiding discussion” themselves.

During the semester each student takes responsibility for a “provocation,” a written and oral project whereby they start off the class. This works best in small seminars under 15, but it can scale up to 30 with careful management. Each class period a student takes responsibility for kicking off our discussion of the reading with a short paper that briefly summarizes the argument, pulls a choice textual selection for discussion, and asks a provocative question or two, and then explains why this question meets three critera: (1) it is personally interesting to the student, (2) difficult to answer because it turns on a deep philosophical disagreement/confusion or rests on tricky empirical issues, and (3) important for directing further study and/or its answers will have implications for other relevant questions.

I always make sure to model these provocations for students myself, and indeed this afternoon I’ll be doing so using an article by Danielle Allen:


Danielle Allen’s “The Life of a South Central Statistic” is an excerpt from her book Cuz, which describes her cousin Michael Allen who was incarcerated as an adolescent for a string of robberies and thefts. Danielle Allen describes how Michael was locked up under the then-new three strikes policy in California (which also enhanced sentencing for carjacking) and how prison changed him—and how the relationships he formed there eventually led to his murder. Though he worked as a firefighter while incarcerated his criminal record kept him from taking firefighting up as a career upon release, and he fell into the drug trade. Though she lays some blame at the feet of the California legislature for meting out such a harsh sentence, Danielle Allen also describes the violence of organized drug trafficking as a “para-state” with twice the resources of the CIA operating in American cities to exploit and kill men like her cousin.

One of the more striking passages in the article is this one:

“California’s legislators had given up on the idea of rehabilitation in prison, even for juveniles. This is a point that critics of the penal system make all the time. Here is what they don’t say: legislators had also given up on retribution. Anger drives retribution. When the punishment fits the crime, retribution is achieved, and anger is sated; it softens. This is what makes it anger, not hatred, a distinction recognized by philosophers all the way back to antiquity. Retribution limits how much punishment you can impose.

The legislators who voted to try as adults sixteen-year-olds, and then fourteen-year-olds, were not interested in retribution. They had become deterrence theorists. They were designing sentences not for people but for a thing: the aggregate level of crime. They wanted to reduce that level, regardless of what constituted justice for any individual involved. The target of Michael’s sentence was not a bright fifteen-year-old boy with a mild proclivity for theft but the thousands of carjackings that occurred in Los Angeles. Deterrence dehumanizes. It directs at the individual the full hatred that society understandably has for an aggregate phenomenon. But no individual should bear that kind of responsibility.”

In the quoted paragraphs above, Danielle Allen seems to suggest that the political morality of deterrence is worse than revenge. Is the purpose of criminal punishment to prevent crime? Does this treat a person like an aggregate–a statistic–as she suggests?

This fascinates me because I am tempted to believe that the only reasonable use of state violence to punish is to deter worse behavior, but such efforts are often accused of dehumanizing the perpetrator. Yet revenge seems more dehumanizing, doesn’t it? Perhaps this is difficult to answer because the manifold justifications for punishment all speak to us at different times in terms of different crimes: when we see the individual harm to a victim we are much more likely to demand the satisfaction of our anger in revenge—but when we think about the ways that a deterrence theory might prevent some crimes from even happening it seems better than having more crime and more retribution for those crimes! I wonder whether there are techniques that could be used to combine these theories: perhaps there are ways that revenge is itself deterring—for instance it signals that crimes are unacceptable. But still there is more to deterrence than renaming revenge: for instance it might be the case that some crimes are difficult to prevent, while other crimes—which cause less harm overall—can be prevented best with really graphically shameful punishments. (For instance, perhaps slumlords are best deterred by being required to stand shamefully in front of their badly maintained buildings holding a sign indicating their violations.) There’s a lot of further study warranted here—and plenty of room for both empirical assessment and more principled philosophical exploration of the related themes.


This provocation barely touches the surface of the interesting themes raised by the article and Allen’s book. But it’s enough to get a conversation started, and I usually come prepared with four to six passages and questions like this for an hour-long class. Quite often I find that even students who are randomly assigned to provoke on some topic develop a semester-long fixation on the themes that arose during their provocation–just because the deep thinking and preparation required to write this short assignment and share it with others gives them a sort of endowment effect with those issues. Here are some more provocations on Allen:

  • Michael was technically a “violent” criminal but his victims weren’t really hurt. He was also a teenager, and perhaps less culpable than an adult in a similar situation. What should we make of his age in assessing his culpability?
  • Michael’s lover–and murderer–was a trans woman named Bree and there are all sorts of issues raised by her time in a men’s facility in California. Should Bree have been housed with women? What would have happened to Michael then?
  • Michael had a loving and supportive mother but her struggles with abusive partners may have contributed to his fate. Could she have done anything differently? And how do our public policies exacerbate these circumstances?
  • Some of Michael’s difficulties upon release are closely tied to the stigmas he faced during reentry. But others are tied to the fact that he fell in love with Bree while incarcerated–they are the results of the deliberate decisions of an adult man struggling to manage social expectations, economic needs, and an obviously abusive relationship with someone who he loved helplessly. What should we make of his story?
  • I find Allen’s discussion of the para-state endlessly fascinating and I wonder whether this is something that prison abolitionists should spend more time working on. Why does she name it a “para-state” and what should we say about the violence that arises from it? Does she partly exonerate the United States for its racist, mass incarcerating policies thereby?

The Enduring Appeal of Perversity Arguments and Unintended Consequences Warnings

James Forman, Jr. won the Pulitzer Prize last week for his book Locking Up Our OwnIt is well-deserved. That book–and his earlier work wrangling with Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow–shows the ways that we have arrived at the wicked problem of mass incarceration through something much harder to disdain than evil scheming by distant elites. We did it to ourselves, and African-American political leaders did it with the full support of their African-American constituents.

Forman’s argument is sometimes conflated with that of Naomi Murakawa, who argued that it was liberals, not conservatives, who created mass incarceration by emphasizing the importance of safety over all other civil rights goals. According to Murakawa, when Lyndon Johnson championed the the 1968 Safe Streets Act which swelled the flow of federal dollars–and federally procured military equipment–into local law enforcement, it wasn’t just a capitulation to conservatives, but:

“part of a long-term liberal agenda, one that reflected a belief that federally subsidized police recruitment and training could become racially fair.” (73)

That is, according to Murakawa, Democrats didn’t adopt law-and-order rhetoric to respond to the policy entrepreneurship from Republicans that threatened to swamp them–they explicitly preferred more coercive and punitive state institutions so long as the men and women wielding the riot gear were racially diverse. By the mid-nineties, Bill Clinton wasn’t passing the 1994 Crime Bill because he got dragged there by Republicans, the Democrats lead the way–in fact the Senate version was sponsored by none other than Joe Biden. Murakawa’s conclusion is damning:

In the end, the Big House may serve racial conservativism, but it was built on the rock of racial liberalism. Liberal law-and-order promised to deliver freedom from racial violence by way of the civil rights carceral state, with professionalized police and prison guards less likely to provoke Watts and Attica. Despite all their differences, Truman’s first essential right of 1947, Johnson’s police professionalization, Kennedy’s sentencing reform, and even Biden’s death penalty proposals landed on a shared metric: criminal justice was racially fair to the extent that it ushered each individual through an ordered, rights-laden machine. Routinized administration of race-neutral laws would mean that racial disparate outcomes would be seen, if at all, as individually particularized and therefore not racially motivated.” (151)

James Forman’s book is quite different. Where Murakawa places most of the blame squarely on white Democrats, Forman places his lens on Black politicians in DC, and finds a very different dynamic. From the start, the story of the rise of racialized mass incarceration is a tragic story of reasonable and well-intentioned Black leaders fighting white supremacy and Black disadvantage with reason and evidence. They made deliberate choices that were well-justified and supported by their constituents. And incrementally, they made things worse.

DC’s leaders saw drugs like heroin as a scourge and heroin dealers as race traitors. They saw violent crime rising, and guns playing a major role. And they wanted Black police–because those were good jobs and because Black police officers wouldn’t be tempted to engage in racist practices. So they punished drug dealers and ultimately drug users. They punished violent crime and gun possession. And they did it with a Black-led and majority-Black police force. But still they ended up creating a majority Black prison population in our (I live in DC too) Black-led and Black-staffed prisons and jails.

Forman does the hardest thing in criminology and law: he adopts the stereoscopic vision that can see both from the perspective of those who fear crime and those who bear the costs of policing and prisons.* Black District residents know what it’s like to fear that their family and neighbors will fall into drug addiction or be the victims of gun crime. They also know what it’s like to fear that their family and neighbors will be terrorized by the police or have their lives derailed by imprisonment. And Forman is able to square those stories: see the victim’s fear and rage with one eye and the perpetrator’s circumstances and his community’s losses with the other. Alone, either perspective gives a flat, two-dimensional image, but together you get depth: three-dimensions of a wicked problem where values are always at stake but a way forward is possible.

The difference between Forman and Murakawa is that where Forman wants to tell a careful story about wicked problems and their double-binds, Murakawa seems to want to show up liberals (including Black liberal elites) as self-undermining and doomed to failure. This is Afropessimism at its best and worst: any efforts at racial equity are perverse and doomed to failure. I find such arguments deeply challenging when they come from non-white authors, which is why it’s important to me to think seriously about what a perversity argument is doing.

A perversity argument is any argument that claims that when we try to do a thing we believe is important, we will fail and make it worse, falling further behind as we try to move ahead. The actual use of perversity and unintended consequences arguments are often justified by some of the available evidence, as well as some of the speculative hypotheses: try to make someone love you and they will feel manipulated; create a minimum wage to help the poor and you’ll increase unemployment; try to reform the criminal justice system and you’ll just make it stronger and more pervasive; tell someone they’re wrong and they’ll sink even deeper into their error; try to engage in affirmative action to reverse racial discrimination and you’ll entrench stereotypes of inferiority.

Margo Schlanger’s 2015 review of Murakawa’s The First Civil Right has stuck with me for a while in part because I still occasionally hear people pushing the Murakawa line that Democrats and liberals are primarily responsible for mass incarceration, and thus can’t be trusted to reverse it. Schlanger has a great reading of Albert Hirschman’s work on reactionaries, radicals, and academics and our enduring love of perversity arguments:

Indeed, perversity arguments are appealing not only to reactionaries and the left-of-liberal left but to academics, irregardless of ideology. As Hirschman says, a perversity argument “is, at first blush, a daring intellectual maneuver. The structure of the argument is admirably simple, whereas the claim being made is rather extreme.” Perversity arguments are counter-intuitive, attention-grabbing. These are attractive characteristics for someone trying to stand out in a crowd of monographs. And sure enough, the attack on liberalism as perversely harming the disempowered has become quite fashionable in criminal justice in particular. Bill Stuntz is its most well-known (and least radical) author, but structurally similar claims have sprouted up all over, usually from the far left. These are arguments that prison conditions litigation causes an increase in incarceration, Miranda rights cause increased arrests, and so on. The claims are empirical—A caused B—but the arguments are usually a combination of ideological and hypothetical.

Perversity arguments feel smart and daring. They make you feel like you’ve seen a secret truth. But they also work to disempower and disengage. They paralyze us with fear, uncertainty, and doubt. Every step in the minefield of unintended consequences and backlashes is probably doomed, so the only safe thing to do is stand still. From the perspective of perversity helping hurts, loving hates, attacking strengthens, and truth-seekers lie. Nothing is what it seems, and everything must be viewed through a hermeneutics of suspicion that ends with a kind of paralysis or status quo preference.

But at the same time… sometimes everything is not what it seems. Sometimes our well-intentioned efforts do make things worse. If Forman is right, DC’s leaders were facing real crime problems in need of real solutions, and they built a tidy mass incarcerated city without ever seeking to do so. And his chapters on DC’s responses to gun violence, especially, strike me as importantly relevant to current discussions of gun control in the wake of the Parkland shootings.


*Another book that manages the “stereoscopic view” well is Danielle Allen’s Cuz.

Civic Death and the Afterlife of Imprisonment

It’s primary season, and once again I am reminded at just how little the rest of the country cares about the disenfranchisement of the District of Columbia. I usually salve my irritation with the knowledge that individual votes are unlikely to sway an election, so I am largely unharmed personally. The problem, of course, is that the disenfranchisement of a large group of people who share some interests does seem likely to have serious policy effects, as those interests are systematically ignored. (Perhaps a more powerful argument defending the loss of DC’s voting rights in federal matters is that it might force us to attend to local politics where decisions are both consequential and close enough to our lives to be noticed. So far, though, I am unimpressed.)

In any case, my neighbors and I are not alone. Vann Newkirk has a piece in the Atlantic challenging felon and prisoner disenfranchisement:

The origins of disenfranchisement as a vehicle of American punishment are likely traceable to some form of the classical notion of a “civil death.” For the Greeks, the punishment of civil death was akin to capital punishment—a complete extinguishing of the civil rights that Greeks believed constituted personhood, including suffrage, landownership, and the right to file lawsuits. English common law borrowed the Greek concept, and civil death was long viewed as a suitable punishment for felony offenses.

But civil death as a formal punishment in the American colonies differed from the English system on which it was based, and from the punishments that would later evolve. Civil death was initially only adopted in America for a very small number of felonies, the most common of which were violations directly connected to voting—for example, fraud or bribery. This paralleled both an expansion of crimes considered felonies and a decoupling of felony punishment from capital punishment. The use of long-term imprisonment, instead of corporal or capital punishment, only came about in fits and starts.

It doesn’t have to be that way. In Maryland, former felons are regaining their voting rights this year, and that affects some of the graduates of the JCI Prison Scholars Program! It’s pretty great.

For too long, we have begun to imagine that violators of the social contract are somehow unable to participate in its revision. In a world without ungoverned spaces, it’s no longer possible to exile our trangressors into the wastes. But what we do instead is significantly more cruel: exiled to social and civil death, prisoners are meant to continue to live in our midst while occupying as little of our time and energy as possible. They’re invisible men whose future is supposed to hold no future except to be ignored.

Yet the fantasies of social death are pernicious precisely because they imagine no return. The reality is that most of these men must someday rejoin the communities from which they have been exiled. People come back. What’s more, they’re never really that far away.

Their lives and ours are still bound together: at the very least we still pay to keep our fellow citizens incarcerated, we still send some of our fellow citizens inside to guard and “correct” them. But it’s also worth remembering that the prison’s walls are remarkably permeable. Guards and visiting family stream in and out. Gang members inside help their outside colleagues agree to cessation of hostilities.

If we were still able to punish our criminals with exile or death, it would be much easier. Instead ghosts still haunt us long after their social death. Fathers and mothers still parent their daughters and sons from within the prison’s walls. Husbands have long arguments and tender reconciliations with their wives as phone calls and letters go back and forth at great expense. And in most cases, the men and women who go off to prison must eventually shamble back from the social death we’ve wished upon them.

I still don’t know if there’s room for prisons in a just society. Our vengeful impulses seem to require some sort of satisfaction, and imprisonment might just be the fairest one remaining. But I do feel confident that those prisons cannot be premised on social death any longer.

Reprobation as Shared Inquiry: Teaching the Liberal Arts in Prison

One of the reasons I blog less than I used to is that in addition to running this journal I’ve been teaching and organizing a college program at Jessup Correctional Institution. (Although I think it was having a daughter that really sucked the wind out of my sails, blogging-wise.)

Anyway,first page to prove I haven’t been completely unproductive, my collaborator Daniel Levine and I just published an article on the philosophy of punishment that reflects on our experiences at JCI. Here’s the abstract:

Respect for victims requires that we have social systems for punishing and condemning (reproving) serious crimes. But, the conditions of social marginalization and political subordination of the communities from which an overwhelming number of prisoners in the United States come place serious barriers in the face of effective reprobation. Mass incarceration makes this problem worse by disrupting and disrespecting entire communities. While humanities education in the prisons is far from a total solution, it is one way to make reprobation meaningful, so long as the prison classroom is a place where the educators’ values are also put at risk.

If your library doesn’t have a subscription to RPR, you can read an archival copy (which excludes the final formatting and page numbers) through philpapers here.