American prison system debate reaches new level

Hagan_Who_F12Orange Is the New Black, a comedy-drama series based on Piper Kerman’s memoir of the same name, recently hit the screens of Netflix users, receiving widespread critical acclaim. The show, revolving around Kernan’s sentence in a women’s federal prison, sheds light on social structure, rules, culture, and overall the experiences of the inmates in U.S. prisons.

Kernan, now a board member of the Women’s Prison Association, recently discussed her experience and suggestions for changing the American prison system on NPR’s Fresh Air. That same week, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder stated that the U.S. has an “unnecessarily large prison population,” calling the system “both ineffective and unsustainable.”

While the consensus that change is necessary is spread across party lines, the debate among lawmakers over what to do and how to do it is heavy. One certainty is, however, that the conversation has reached a national level, and an understanding of the U.S. prison system is becoming increasingly necessary.

In Who Are the Criminals?, John Hagan argues that the recent history of American criminal justice can be divided into two eras—the age of Roosevelt (roughly 1933 to 1973) and the age of Reagan (1974 to 2008). A focus on rehabilitation, corporate regulation, and the social roots of crime in the earlier period was dramatically reversed in the later era. In the age of Reagan, the focus shifted to the harsh treatment of street crimes, especially drug offenses, which disproportionately affected minorities and the poor and resulted in wholesale imprisonment. At the same time, a massive deregulation of business provided new opportunities, incentives, and even rationalizations for white-collar crime—and helped cause the 2008 financial crisis and subsequent recession. The time for moving beyond Reagan-era crime policies is long overdue, Hagan argues. The understanding of crime must be reshaped and we must reconsider the relative harms and punishments of street and corporate crimes. In a new afterword, Hagan assesses Obama’s policies regarding the punishment of white-collar and street crimes and debates whether there is any evidence of a significant change in the way our country punishes them.

Sykes_SocietyThe Society of Captives, first published in 1958, is a classic of modern criminology and one of the most important books ever written about prison. Gresham Sykes wrote the book at the height of the Cold War, motivated by the world’s experience of fascism and communism to study the closest thing to a totalitarian system in American life: a maximum security prison. His analysis calls into question the extent to which prisons can succeed in their attempts to control every facet of life—or whether the strong bonds between prisoners make it impossible to run a prison without finding ways of “accommodating” the prisoners. Re-released fifty years later, The Society of Captives will continue to serve as an indispensable text for coming to terms with the nature of modern power.

For further reading:

When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment by Mark A. R. Kleiman
Games Prisoners Play: The Tragicomic Worlds of Polish Prison
by Marek M. Kaminski
Prison Religion: Faith-Based Reform and the Constitution by Winnifred Fallers Sullivan

Margaret J Radin talks Boilerplates in op-ed in the Los Angeles Times

Boilerplate coverWhether it is a one time practice or a weekly scheduled session, gymnastic facilities have participants sign a boilerplate that relieves the gym and all their personnel of all responsibility if you get hurt while there. At a gym near my hometown, a friend of mine dislocated her elbow after an instructor did not properly spot her while she tried a new gymnastics trick. Needless to say, the gym manager at the time handed her a phone to call her mother, then wiped his hands of the situation and it was on to the next class.

In a recent op-ed for the Los Angeles Times, Margaret Jane Radin discusses how a boilerplate to attend a birthday party at a gymnastics facility forced her niece to sign that the gym was not responsible if her three year old were to sustain any injuries. Radin discusses what boilerplates mean for our legal rights in her book Boilerplate. Boilerplates are the paperwork or its electronic equivalent that must be signed in order to use the service or product. What exactly are you signing away when you sign or click “I accept”?

Read part of the op-ed below.

Blackmailed by the fine print

Boilerplate is more than just an annoyance. It threatens democracy and the rule of law.

My niece, the mother of a 3-year-old, told me she felt blackmailed: In order for her child to attend a birthday party at a gymnastics facility for young children, she had to sign a form that included this:

“The undersigned agrees to defend, indemnify, and hold harmless [this facility], its officers, managers, members, employees, servants, agents and coaches/instructors and their successors and assigns from and against all legal liability, claims, suits, damages, losses, and expenses, including attorneys’ fees, threatened or incurred, and arising from the child’s participation, or from any cause whatsoever.”

Forms like this are called boilerplate because they are delivered to us on a take-it-or-leave-it basis. If my niece signed this one, she would relieve the gym of legal liability if her child were harmed at the party. And should she try to challenge the “hold harmless” form, she would be responsible for the facility’s legal expenses if she lost.

Lawyers know (but non-lawyers probably don’t) that such forms may be found to be legally overreaching if the matter ever reaches a court; no business or individual can “contract out” of reckless or grossly negligent or intentionally harmful behavior. When such questions do reach a judge, however, courts in many states will excuse mere negligence, such as a failure to screen employees or maintain equipment or premises properly.

Read the FULL op-ed here.


John McGinnis op-ed for Investor’s Business Daily

2-7 AcceleratingJohn McGinnis, author of Accelerating Democracy: Transforming Governance through Technology, proposes in his book that the government does not take full advantage of the benefits that technology gives. He explains that recent technology can be used to better analyze past, present, and future public policy. In a recent op-ed for Investor’s Business Daily, he explains how prediction markets can serve as a way to discover if policies will be beneficial before they are fully enacted. McGinnis argues that prediction markets are not the same as internet gambling and that they should be legalized as a way to assess policies that fits the technology of today.

Read the full op-ed below.

[Read more…]

John McGinnis on Technology and the Government

In such a fast paced world, it only makes sense that everything in our lives moves as quickly as we do. Whether the speed is through our internet connection or news updates, our society feeds off technological advances that have made our lives quicker and more efficient. In the government, however, technology has not been fully embraced thus giving the government a slow image. Recently, Todd Park became the White House chief technology officer and aims to change the government’s image. In Accelerating Democracy: Transforming Governance Through Technology by John McGinnis, he explains how fast-evolving information technologies can be used to better analyze past, present, and future public policy but says that this can only happen if the government keeps up with technology’s pace. In a recent interview with The Takeaway, McGinnis discusses his book and why the government should use technology to test social policy and more.


Boilerplate reviewed in The Wall Street Journal

The overload of tiny text in the Terms of Service Agreement is for most people just a blur of words that they don’t take the time to read. Most people I know bypass the reading and head straight for the little square box next to the words “I agree to the terms and conditions” without thinking twice. In Margaret Jane Radin’s book Boilerplate, she examines how these fine print service agreements or boilerplate contracts might seem very little but can have a big impact. Boilerplate contracts threaten rights that people would otherwise be entitled to if they had not agreed to the terms of services agreement. They are not real contracts at all and actually degrade the moral basis of contract law.

The Wall Street Journal recently reviewed Boilerplate and called it “[A] sophisticated and thought-provoking treatment of the boilerplate contracts that everyone signs yet few read or understand.”

Read the full review here and read Boilerplate, and maybe even read the terms of service agreement the next time you buy music or rent an apartment.

In the News: Affirmative Action Supreme Court Case

What’s appearing to be the most controversial U.S. Supreme Court case of this term took place this Wednesday, October 10. Are affirmative action programs beneficial or downright unlawful? Opponents of affirmative action claim that public universities are actively practicing illegal discrimination when considering race as a factor for admission. In 2003, the Supreme Court said that affirmative action may prove necessary for the next quarter of a century to guarantee that university classrooms would reflect the vast racial diversity of the United States. Wednesday, the court questioned the racial preferences used by the University of Texas to achieve student diversity in their college admission processes and are currently reconsidering that 2003 decision.

William G. Bowen & Derek Bok’s 2000 book The Shape of the River: Long-Term Consequences of Considering Race in College and University Admissions brings a wealth of empirical evidence to bear on how race-sensitive admissions policies actually work and clearly defines the effects they have had on over 45,000 students of different races. Similarly, Thomas J. Espenshade & Alexandria Walton Radford’s No Longer Separate, Not Yet Equal: Race and Class in Elite College Admission and Campus Life pulls back the curtain on the selective college experience and takes a rigorous and comprehensive look at how race and social class impact each stage—from application and admission, to enrollment and student life on campus.

Check out the Preface to The Shape of the River or read the Introduction to No Longer Separate, Not Yet Equal and share with us your opinions on this highly controversial case.

Timur Kuran and The Long Divergence featured in the Boston Globe

Timur Kuran, author of Islam and Mammon and The Long Divergence is featured in a piece by Thanassis Cambanis about the effects of Islamic law on economies. Cambanis writes:

“Has the Islamic world been held back by its treatment at the hands of history? Or could the roots of the problem lie in its shared religion—in the Koran, and Islamic belief itself?

A provocative new answer is emerging from the work of Timur Kuran, a Turkish-American economist at Duke University and one of the most influential thinkers about how, exactly, Islam shapes societies. In a growing body of work, Kuran argues that the blame for the Islamic world’s economic stagnation and democracy deficit lies with a distinct set of institutions that Islamic law created over centuries. The way traditional Islamic law handled finance, inheritance, and incorporation, he argues, held back both economic and political development. These practices aren’t inherent in the religion—they emerged long after the establishment of Islam, and have partly receded from use in the modern era. But they left a profound legacy in many societies where Islam held sway.”

The entire article is available on

Gabriella Coleman featured in Fast Company

With the exponentially growing importance of the internet, hacking is quickly becoming a subject worthy of study in an anthropological setting. Gabriella Coleman was interviewed by Adam Bluestein of Fast Company and discussed how exactly she gravitated toward studying hacking and digital activism, her fascination with the hacker collective Anonymous, and the introduction of hacker culture as an acceptable subject for an anthropology major. Gabriella’s forthcoming book is called Coding Freedom: The Ethics and Aesthetics of Hacking and addresses some of these topics.

Read the entire interview here!

‘Blind Spots’ author Max Bazerman discusses the Sandusky trial on WNYC’s The Takeaway

Max Bazerman, co-author of Blind Spots: Why We Fail to Do What’s Right and What to Do about It (along with Ann Tenbrunsel) appeared on WNYC’s The Takeaway to discuss the trial of former Penn State assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky. You can listen to the interview below.

David Scheffer in the UK

David Scheffer author of ‘All the Missing Souls: A Personal History of the War Crimes Tribunals’ was in London this week and spoke at Chatham House. An audio recording of his talk is now available on their website. His trip coincided with the conviction on Wednesday 14th March of Thomas Lubanga Dyilo in what was the first verdict delivered by the International Criminal Court in The Hague. In an appearance on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme (please scroll down to 0824 for the clip) he was interviewed about this and the relationship of the United States to the court.

David Scheffer in Europe

David Scheffer, author of the recently published ‘All the Missing Souls: A Personal History of the War Crimes Tribunals’ will be touring Europe from 12 – 24 March, speaking in London, The Hague, Berlin, Cologne, Vienna, Budapest, Sarajevo and Brussels.  While in London he will be talking at the Society for Oriental and African Studies on 12th March and at Chatham House on 13 March.  Both these events are free and open to the public so please follow the links if you would like to sign up. For more detailed information on any of the other events in Europe please contact Caroline Priday or @crpriday

Timur Kuran: Upcoming events in Princeton and NYC!

Timur Kuran, author of The Long Divergence: How Islamic Law Held Back the Middle East, has two events coming up later this month in Princeton and NYC. Kuran, a professor of economics and political science at Duke University, published The Long Divergence in 2010.  Read an extract from the book’s first chapter here!


Tuesday, February 21, 2012: Princeton University, Princeton, NJ

4:30 p.m in Jones 100 (campus map)

Free and open to the public

The Institute for the Transregional Study of the Contemporary Middle East, North Africa, and Central Asia presents Timur Kuran:

“Structural Inefficiencies of Islamic Courts: Ottoman Justice and Its Implications for Modern Economic Life”

More information about the event here.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012: The American Turkish Society, New York, NY
6:30 – 8:00 PM
305 East 47th Street, 8th Floor
New York, NY 10017

Free for members, $25 for non-members

Register for the event here, or read the full announcement!