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Prison Plastic Surgery: The Biopolitics of Appearance and Crime in New York’s Civil Rights Era

December 4, 2023

From 1920 to 1990, around 500,000 US incarcerees received free plastic surgery during their incarceration. The majority of the surgeries — which included facelifts, rhinoplasty, chin implants, blepharoplasties, breast implants, etc. — were performed for purely cosmetic reasons, under the broad banner of prisoner rehabilitation. The underlying notion was to assist marginalized individuals in assimilating into society by capitalizing on prevailing beauty biases. New York was an early prison plastic surgery pioneer, alongside other rehabilitative offerings, but these programs were not without controversy. Concerned, in 1968, Governor Nelson Rockefeller charged the Department of Crime Control Planning to investigate the long-term outcomes of various recidivism programs, a project that spanned five years and covered 231 methodologies. This research report outlines the early emphasis on prisoner beautification, and the broader shift in carceral policies from rehabilitative to punitive, based on a review of records in the Rockefeller Archive Center pertaining to correctional reform, access to healthcare, and civil rights issues. This report summarizes my preliminary findings from the archives, and adds additional context to my book, Killer Looks: The Forgotten History of Plastic Surgery In Prisons, (Prometheus Books, 2021), which explored the history of criminal reform through the lens of beauty and bias.  Using records, the majority unearthed from the Joint Commission on Correctional Manpower and Training in the Nelson A. Rockefeller Gubernatorial Records, along with records from the Bureau of Social Hygiene, the Ford Foundation, and the Rockefeller Brothers Fund archives, I discuss rehabilitative ideals and lookism, intermingled with political wrangling and efficacy in twentieth-century New York. My work deals with correctional healthcare and surgery, but more broadly, it is about the shift from a rehabilitative to a punitive approach to crime. As contemporary discourse returns to the importance of rehabilitation, the insights presented in this research will foster current conversations and enable us to learn from the past. 

Reimagining Public Safety: Community Listening Sessions with Black Communities and Public Defenders

December 4, 2023

This is the final report of a one-year project funded by the Joyce Foundation entitled "Reimagining Public Safety: Community Listening Sessions with Black Communities and Black Defenders." The National Black Public Defender Association (BPDA) partnered with the Law Office of the Cook County Public Defender, the community-based organization Blackroots Alliance (BA), and a consultant team of researchers from Northwestern University to undertake a public safety assessment in Chicago. The project asked Black Chicagoans: "What does safety mean to you?"The project has engaged impacted individuals around the issue of public safety and invited community members to redefine the term "safety" holistically, beyond the narrow focus on the absence of harm. The project aimed to both answer the critical question of what impacted Black communities need to feel safe and thrive and to build relationships between community residents, advocates, organizers, and Black public defenders.We are at a critical juncture in America in attempting to address racism and inequities in policing and legal processing, and we must use this moment to do things radically differently. We risk repeating the failures of the past by allowing "experts" to define what the future of public safety should look like in the Black community without the voices of Black community members. The findings from this project can help policymakers, funders, activists, and community groups build sustainable public safety reforms built on principles of justice and responsiveness to Black community needs.

Reading Between the Bars

October 25, 2023

Reading Between the Bars builds on PEN America's benchmark 2019 briefer on carceral censorship, Literature Locked Up: How Prison Book Restriction Policies Constitute the Nation's Largest Book Ban, in which we first delineated the difference between content-based and content-neutral censorship. Reading Between the Bars and the accompanying indexes lay out how previously documented policies have adapted and changed in the intervening years, and provide updated information on censorship policies in all 50 states alongside insights gained from prison mailrooms, prison book programs, and personal narratives from incarcerated individuals experiencing censorship.

Still Not Free When They Come Home, a Community Report: How Wisconsin's Criminal Legal System Harms Democracy and the Black Community on Milwaukee's North Side

October 16, 2023

During the first half of 2023, Black Leaders Organizing Communities (BLOC), a Black-led community-based organization in Milwaukee, and the Center for Popular Democracy conducted a participatory action research project where six of BLOC's member leaders from the North Side of Milwaukee interviewed their family members, neighbors, and other residents of the community about how policing and incarceration impacted their community's ability to participate in our democracy.Community members living on the northside of Milwaukee, where a large share of Wisconsin's Black residents live, have long experienced racism and state violence, criminalization and incarceration, poverty, and disenfranchisement (having their rights, especially voting rights, taken away). The community also has a long history of civic and political involvement—from civil rights era demonstrations against racial segregation to more recent protests against police violence. Today, its residents are among the most incarcerated in the US—and people often describe one of its zip codes, 53206, as among the most incarcerated zip codes in the country. This horrible status is the result of deeply entrenched historic and ongoing racial segregation, economic exclusion, and targeted policing that have torn at the fabric of North Side families and community fordecades.Drawing from interviews with community members, the BLOC researchers' long-term observations from their community, and their own and their family members' personal experiences, this report discusses the impact of Wisconsin's criminal legal system on the Black community on the northside of Milwaukee.

Changing Course in Youth Detention: Reversing Widening Gaps by Race and Place

August 3, 2023

The Annie E. Casey Foundation has found large and widening gaps in youth detention by race and place in its three-year analysis of the effects of the coronavirus pandemic on juvenile justice systems. When it comes to the odds of being detained, young people in the United States live in different worlds, depending on their race and the region and jurisdiction where they reside. The disproportionate use of detention for Black youth — already distressingly high before the pandemic — has increased. Also, over that three-year period, where youth lived mattered to a greater extent to their odds of being detained than it did before.

The Criminalization of Poverty in Kentucky: How Economic Crises and Flawed Reforms Fueled an Incarceration Boom

August 1, 2023

In recent decades, Kentucky's carceral system has exploded in size, fueled by policies that criminalize poverty and substance use while prioritizing punishment over public safety. Amid significant economic restructuring due to the decline of manufacturing and coal extraction industries, local governments have attempted to turn their criminal legal systems into revenue generators. Entrenched financial incentives have served as powerful motivators for jailers, prosecutors, judges, and county commissioners to preserve the status quo of mass criminalization. During a time in which communities increasingly struggled with substance use disorders and needed real solutions to tackle this public health crisis, Kentucky's lawmakers continued to pass laws that allowed prosecutors and judges to impose harsh penalties for drug-related offenses. Through interviews, archival research, and data analysis, this report shows the consequences of this system on people's daily lives, in a state where criminalization has become the de facto response to poverty and substance use.

Changing Prison Culture Reduces Violence

August 1, 2023

Restoring Promise, an initiative of the MILPA Collective and Vera, works with departments of corrections to transform housing units so that they are grounded in dignity for young adults in prison. Launched in 2017, Restoring Promise is now operating in six prisons and one jail across five states. The housing units are led by trained corrections professionals and mentors—incarcerated people serving long sentences who live on the unit and guide the young adults. The program strives to transform the prison culture into one of accountability, healing, and learning.This brief presents findings from a randomized controlled trial (RCT) conducted in prisons in South Carolina. The study found that Restoring Promise's approach to culture change in prisons significantly reduces violence and the use of solitary confinement.

What We Need to Thrive: A Youth-Led Vision for a Just Alameda County

August 1, 2023

In July of 2021—after decades of organizing by young people and their families—California made a bold decision to close the Department of Juvenile Justice (DJJ). As a result, California counties are now responsible for treating, caring for, and even locking-up young people who would have otherwise been reprimanded to DJJ.To facilitate this realignment, California is distributing over $500 million in grants to local counties, including Alameda. It has been nearly 3 years since these funds began flowing in, but according to young people themselves, they still do not have access to improved services. So we asked ourselves, where is the money going? And perhaps more importantly, we asked the youth: where should these funds be going? What is the county doing since realignment funds first began flowing to Alameda in 2020? Are they receiving the support they need? What services do they prioritize for youth justice in their county? What aspirations do they hold?To find out, the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights (EBC) and Ceres Policy Research conducted a youth-led, community-driven research project in Alameda County. This project aimed to assess the impacts of the current youth justice system, gathering input from impacted families, youth, and community leaders to build a shared strategic vision for youth justice in Alameda County, and beyond. The results are outlined in this report.

Review and Analysis: Resilient Communities Grantmaking Portfolio (2020-2022)

July 27, 2023

The Sozosei Foundation launched its Resilient Communities Program (RCP) in the summer of 2020 at the request of Otsuka America Pharmaceutical, Inc. (OAPI), with the intent of evolving the company's longstanding commitment to philanthropy. The goal of the program was to refine the company's philanthropic commitment by designing guidelines and priorities to support diverse, under-resourced communities where the company has a presence. Over the two years of its grantmaking, the program provided over $1 million in grants and served over 177,000 people across six target communities.

Recommendations To Reduce Frequent Jail Contact

July 25, 2023

Although most jail admissions represent the only contact a person will have with the criminal legal system, there is a small group of people who experience more frequent jail contact and who represent a disproportionate number of both jail admissions and expenditures. People with frequent jail contact experience complex, interconnected social, economic, and behavioral health needs that may exacerbate (or be exacerbated by) their frequent jail contact. This group also experiences frequent contact with other services in the community, such as emergency rooms, homeless shelters, and treatment facilities. Strategies to implement services that meet complex needs and address structural barriers are critical to meaningfully and sustainably reduce system involvement among the population of people who experience frequent jail contact.Effective change for people with frequent jail contact must proceed simultaneously on a systemic, policy level and on the individual services level. The population discussed in this policy brief typically has complicated behavioral and medical health needs, extensive criminal legal encounters, and significant social deficits such as poverty, isolation, and elevated risk of being unhoused. Many of their needs can be addressed with intensive, person-centered treatment in a coordinated continuum of care.

"You Suffer a Lot": Immigrants with Disabilities Face Barriers in Immigration Court

July 19, 2023

Immigrants with disabilities face many barriers as they navigate deportation proceedings in U.S. immigration courts, where they must gather and submit evidence, testify, and present their case, often without a lawyer. These proceedings are adversarial, confusing, and terrifying for many immigrants, particularly people facing deportation to persecution or torture. As detailed in this report, the barriers that disabled immigrants face are exacerbated by a lack of resources and information about immigrants' rights under disability law in immigration court proceedings, absence of an established protocol for exercising those rights, denials of reasonable accommodations and safeguards to meaningfully participate in their proceedings, the use of detention to jail people during their immigration court cases, and disability discrimination in immigration court, including bias, stigma, and hostility from immigration judges. These barriers and harms violate federal disability law, Constitutional due process protections, and immigration law.

Implementing Domestic Violence Peer-Support Programs in Jail: A Starting Point

July 11, 2023

Domestic violence is one of the most prevalent crimes in the United States, and even more prevalent for women who are or have been incarcerated. About 75% of women who have been or are incarcerated have experienced domestic violence. This trauma can lead to victims feeling isolated, alone, shamed, or even like they're at fault for what has happened. In some cases, survivors start having suicidal thoughts or ideation. When domestic violence victims become criminal defendants or are incarcerated, they still need full wrap-around services, including advocacy, support, safety planning, and community resources. Domestic violence survivors face an increased risk of incarceration. In some cases, they may be arrested after using self-defense against their abusers or kidnapping their children to protect them. In other situations, their abusers may force them to commit crimes, or they may run into trouble with the law due to an addiction stemming from trauma. Some domestic violence survivors even recant reports of abuse because of threats from the abuser.