Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Terrorism, Sexual Assault, and School Shootings: Crime as a Social Fact in Modern Times

Today, London was hit with a terrorist attack outside of the British Parliament buildings. As such events are ever politicized these days, the American president's son criticized London's Mayor, Sadiq Kahn, for a statement made following terror attacks in New York last year. Kahn had said in an interview with London's The Evening Standard, that  "part and parcel of living in a great global city" is being prepared for terrorism. He further explained, 
"It is a reality I'm afraid that London, New York, other major cities around the world have got to be prepared for these sorts of things," he said.  
Kahn is correct. Terrorism has become a fact of life. Moreover, it's not just terrorism. 

In the 1990s, Punishment & Society scholars noted the way in which crime had become a social fact. (Liska in the 1980s, but more well known, Garland in 1996, 2000, and 2001, among others.) They were interested in why (how had this happened) and what were its consequences.  Just as scholars were starting to write about this however, in the late 1990s, fear of crime began to decrease (after a delay, following several years of crime declines) and it continued to decrease in the early 2000s. 

Importantly, just as crime (in general) as a social fact started to decrease, other specific types of crime as a social fact increased. In the early 2000s, following 9/11, fear of crime was displaced by fear of terrorism. Likewise, school shootings became another focal point in the late 1990s and early 2000s. As the acknowledgement of sexual assault, particularly on college campuses, increases, we probably have seen an increase in that as well (Gallup does not seem to have historical data on this, after an admittedly quick check, but for the last fifteen years or so, the numbers for women's fear of sexual assault as been fairly stable at around one in three).

I started to recognize the way in which terrorism, school shootings, and sexual assault have become a social fact---almost background noise---a few years ago. 

The first was in graduate school (c. 2012---the fact that I'm unsure of the date or incident is itself telling). I walked into the cafe at the law school to get my morning coffee; CNN was on the TVs, as it always is. I glanced up, saw the special alert, and paid attention---until I saw that it was "only" a school shooting. The "body count" wasn't "that high," so I stopped paying attention and went to order my coffee. After a moment, I realized how shocking my response had been. I had started to take school shootings for granted. I was in junior high, about to graduate into high school, when Columbine happened and I remember how shocking it was in 1999. Then Virginia Tech happened in 2007 while I was about to graduate from college. Sometime between Virginia Tech and the shooting I cannot recall at some point late in graduate school, school shootings had become normalized for me. In fact, in my last year in graduate school, we had a minor incident on campus in which a mentally ill man had brought a gun to the business school and was shot by the police. 

A few years later, at my first job as an assistant professor at another school, another mentally ill man brought a gun into the library around midnight and shot several students. My students' reactions were telling---to most, it was no big deal because, as they put it, no one had died. (Three students had been shot, in addition to the shooter, a former student; one of the students was paralyzed.) For the students who had actually been in the library at the time, however, it had been a traumatizing event; for the others, even though this had happened on campus at one of the busiest libraries I had ever seen (the fact that there were not just students at the library around midnight, but lots of students illustrates the point), it was not really worth talking about. Some of them were even dismissive of those students who were traumatized. By late 2014, a school shooting, even at one's own school, had become normal---unless it had a big body count, again reflecting my own assessment of the CNN coverage of a "miscellaneous" shooting late a few years earlier. 

I started to realize how much campus-based crimes were part of this new version of crime as social fact around the same time while teaching my students a Punishment and Society class. As I've mentioned before, I organize that class around the punitive turn and especially mass incarceration. I always have a discussion about what the late 1980s/1990s were like and how afraid of crime people were. I would also emphasize how people remain afraid of crime but how so often the people who are most afraid are the least likely to be victims---namely, white, upper/middle class people. Or rather, that the type of crime that they are afraid of is much less likely for them. (Avoiding digression on intimate crime in gated communities or the general fear of stranger violence while overlooking the more probable sources of violence.) I used to further tell my students that, as a group, their chances of victimization were relatively low by virtue of the fact that, as future college graduates, they would be among the class strata that experience less victimization. The first time I taught this class, while still in grad school, the problem with my statement didn't strike me. It was only later, as a first-year assistant professor, that I started to realize the problem. Many of my students did not hail from the same middle/upper class backgrounds and might not enter those ranks after graduating. Many of my students, as I increasingly found out, in fact battled serious challenges, including victimization of various kinds; a few had even been homeless earlier in life. These facts weren't what made me realize the complete falseness of my statement. Instead, it was the recognition that possibly 20% of my female students and some portion of my male students had already been the victim of sexual assault or would by the time they graduated. As I found out around this time, there was a "rape trail" near campus that young women were told not to jog on because of the high probability of assault. There was also a frat on campus that was notorious for assaulting young women---again the advice was basically don't go unless you expect to get assaulted. (Sigma Alpha Epsilon was also known as Sexual Assault Expected---not just at my former university but elsewhere, too.)

Putting these two ideas together---how school shootings and sexual assault (primarily of women) were an expected part of life---I started to think of campus crime as a new social fact. A few other illustrations of this, drawing on my own experience: On a campus where students love their guns---and some told me about the gun(s) they kept in their car (campus carry was still in legislative debates)---I had frequently thought about what I would do in the event of a shooting. Each new classroom I taught in, I would have a little strategy session with myself about what to do. Likewise, I do not know how common this was or if it was unique to my particular .edu account at the time, but shortly after starting my first job as an assistant professor, I received a number of mass mailings advertising jewelry and clothing I could purchase to protect myself from sexual assault. I started to pay attention to other advertisements I saw elsewhere. I saw an ad for rape-proof pants, panic-button jewelry, rufie-proof nail polish (dip your fingernail in your drink before drinking), and (moving closer to the non-stranger forms of danger) an app to document your willingness to have sex and your level of intoxication. There was also a whole host of campus-based security protocols students learned about at orientation---these were similar to some that became common across the country several years before while I was in grad school---including campus alerts (emails/texts in the event of emergencies), crime alerts (emails/texts about crime in the area), blue light emergency pillars, campus police escorts for returning from late-night studying, etc. A new one was a special app where if you didn't check in by a particular time, a message would instantly be sent to the police so they would check on you. In general, when there is an industry around a particular crime fear, I think it's safe to say it's become a social fact. 

Interestingly, some of these social facts emerge whether or not the actual risk is low or high. Sexual assault on college campuses appears to be quite high: the statistics certainly vary by study and how sexual assault is defined (it often includes rape, but can involve other forms of non-penetrating sexual assault), but it seems to affect more than 20% of female college students. (I haven't checked, and I'm not sure if there is data on this, but I suspect it has long been around this high. The number of cases of sexual assault we are starting to hear about in other privileged spaces like job interviews, airplanes, office jobs, etc. suggests this is a widespread problem that we are only just now starting to discuss.) School shootings, however, are generally less common, and those that have occurred, terrible though they were, were relatively small---Columbine remained the worst school shooting for nearly a decade, but the frequency of "high body count" shootings seems to have increased in recent years, although there are many more non-casualty or low-casualty shootings (and stabbings) that we do not hear about. (There is actually a wikipedia page listing school massacres by body count.)

Finally, we come back to terrorism. Terrorism is more like school shootings than sexual assaults. As with crime more generally, our chances of being in a terrorist attack are much lower than other potentially fatal problems---car accidents and cancer, as Jonathan Simon (among others) have noted, are far more likely than crime or terrorism, but crime (and now) terrorism remain scarier possibilities or at least those we (seem to) think about more frequently and do more to (look like we are trying to) prevent. At the same time, it also seems to be becoming more common. In the last several years, there have been way more terror attacks than I remember previously. Limited to mass casualty events alone: 
San Bernadino
St. Cloud
New York
A longer list of terrorist attacks since 2014 is available here. When somewhere like San Bernadino, CA, has a mass casualty event (which I'm defining here as 10 deaths or more), I think it's safe to say terrorism is a fact of life. More importantly (for our purposes), it is also a social fact. Unless it injures or kills a large number of people---and even when it does---we don't seem to have the same sense of outrage or other emotions. 

The question for us as punishment scholars is how are these new social facts shaping not just our policies---there's lots on this already---but our lives, our actions, our thoughts, our reactions, our expectations. 


Over the last several months, we've developed a new social fact: hate crime. We've had hate crime for a long, long, long time in the States and elsewhere. But hate crimes targeting Jewish, Muslim, Latino, Black, and LGBTQ individuals, among other groups, have increased over the last several years and particularly over the last month. (See here and here and here.) Earlier in 2016 (pre-election), some countries issued travel alerts warning their citizens about traveling to the US because of its gun violence, anti-LGBT harassment and violence, racism, and xenophobia. (See here and here.) What worries me is the possibility that this change will be like school shootings and sexual assault---a new normal---something we need to prepare/plan for, but also something we get used to. What I do look forward to is how our colleagues make sense of this in the coming years. How much of our received wisdom needs revision in light of what might be a sea change? What are the sources of continuity and difference with the past (for example, a move away from a general "crime as a social fact" model to a specific version in the form of certain crimes as social facts). 

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

"It's Bigger than Christmas": Thoughts on the Significance of the Super Bowl in Prison

[Note: A version of this essay was originally posted at]

Last Sunday, millions of men and women around TVs everywhere watched the Patriots and Falcons compete in Super Bowl LI (51 to non-Romans such as myself). Many of these viewers followed from behind bars in US prisons. Indeed, during my 18 months in "Sunbelt State Penitentiary" (SSP) – the anonymous state prison where I conducted observations and interviews for my dissertation research – I learned just how central the NFL season and the Super Bowl in particular are to prison life. Here, I will share four insights into the power of football in the American prison (a lens through which we might catch a glimpse of other pressing prison concerns, such as diminishing services, economic inequality between the disenfranchised, and the alienation of the inmate population).

1. Somebody Got a Big Payout
Like many a corporate office or friendship circle on the outside, prisons are home to competitive football pools. Behind bars, however, where cheap, durable food items have become the de facto money of choice in response to downturns in institutional food services, inmates cannot easily bet with cash. Instead, at SSP, inmates wagered packets of ramen noodles. Following the exciting comeback of the Patriots, the big winners collected the pot: a sweet stash of delicious and valuable soups.

With their newfound ramen bounty, these pool winners can purchase a variety of goods and services in the underground prison market. For instance, they can buy contraband fruits and veggies (smuggled out of the kitchens), clothes or other necessary wares from other inmates looking to make a quick buck (or quick "bite" in this case), or arts and crafts goods (called "hobbycraft"), such as portraits or birthday cards, which they can mail to friends or family on the outs. Or, they can pay more entrepreneurial inmates for services such as bunk cleaning or laundry for a reasonable ramen fee.

2. Time is About to Slow Down
In prison, the biggest struggle is often that against time. This world of slow monotony can be more than challenging for its captive residents and they will resort to many means to help time slip by faster. One common strategy is to get a job. Many participants in my research discussed their prison sentences in terms of their prison work histories – X through Y months were spent in one work program, Y through Z at another. And getting lost in one’s work is not unique to the outside world. Many inmates seek out the busiest, most physically or mentally engaging work in an effort to lose the hours of the day in the rush of the work week. Whereas many workers in the free world “live for the weekend,” many inmates “live for the week,” dreading the long Saturday and Sunday hours when they must sit in their bunks or shuffle around the yard.

However, football season offers a perfect distraction from the typical drag. It was a common refrain at SSP that “once football season starts, time flies.” The entertainment of watching and rooting for a favorite team is a common enjoyment for the imprisoned and the free. Behind bars, however, it can also represent a lifeline amidst years of incarceration, distance from family and friends, and alienation from the workings of the outside world. In addition to helping speed along the day, the ritual of watching football helps connect inmates to the rest of the world in some small way. These types of connections may be vital to coping with life behind bars. Now that the season has ended, it's back to prison as usual.

3. Not Everyone Gets a Good Seat
In some prisons, shared TVs occupy communal spaces. In such institutions, informal rules may dictate which individuals or groups are allowed prime seating (and when). In other prisons, such as SSP, inmates must instead procure their own entertainment systems. Small TVs like those that people on the outs might find at Walmart for $50 cost hundreds of dollars in the prison commissary store. Such goods are all the more unattainable for the majority of men who make below $0.20 per hour for their labors in prison work programs.

Financial help from family and friends on the outside (often in need of financial assistance themselves) is rare for many inmates, who must instead hustle and save if they hope to deck out their bunk with a television, portable CD player, or other approved entertainment device. For the select inmates who manage to secure competitive higher-paying jobs in inmate work sites (which can pay closer to $1.00, $2.00, or $3.00 per hour at some sites), saving may not be as much of a burden, relatively speaking. The rest, however, must rely on the good graces of their pals or neighbors in their housing units, who might allow them to sit in their bunks to watch the game. While it is possible to purchase a TV directly from another inmate in the black market, this form of exchange is technically prohibited – inmates caught with entertainment items registered in another’s name face having their goods searched and confiscated, disciplinary tickets, Loss of Privileges, or other sanctions.

4. The Super Bowl is the Biggest Holiday of the Year
Despite the issues listed above, this year’s Super Bowl Sunday, as in past years, was the biggest holiday of the year at Sunbelt State Penitentiary. On this day, inmates received a special meal in the chow line (last year it was roast beef sandwiches with actual tomatoes and onions, which was a big deal in an institution where any fresh vegetables are valued “like lobster”). Prisoners are served dinner early on Super Bowl so that they can eat it while they watch the game – a rare allowance of autonomy in a space in which every movement and activity is surveilled and controlled.

It is, in the words of one participant, “bigger than Christmas” and more people turn up for Super Bowl chow than for any other holiday or special occasion. That means that last Sunday, far more inmates than usual ate the state-provided meal and did not turn to the formal or informal markets (via the prison commissary store or the underground ramen economy, respectively) to procure food that was healthier, tastier, and more filling than what the institution offers (in the words of inmate and staff member participants alike).

Monday, the off-season began. As we on the outside returned to routines as usual, the men and women in the nation’s penal institutions still face a range of issues. Economic disadvantage, stratification between inmate groups, unequal access to goods and services, poor quality of food, and other hardships remain facts of everyday life. These and other aspects of the state of US prisons are unlikely to improve under the current presidential administration. Regardless of which team you root for (in athletics or politics), the conditions faced by the millions of Americans behind bars are in need of our attention. 95% of inmates will one day return to their communities. Let’s hope they come back having gained more than just fond memories of the Super Bowl.

(Michael Gibson-Light is a PhD student at the University of Arizona School of Sociology. His dissertation is an ethnographic study of the structure of inmate labor, the practices and strategies of inmate workers, and the formal and informal economic outcomes of work behind bars in a US men's state prison.)

Monday, December 26, 2016

Big Ideas in Punishment and Society: Reboot

A year and a half ago, I had committed myself to writing a series on what I saw as the twelve big ideas in Punishment and Society. I did not followup. Now that things have settled down, and as we furiously finalize our syllabi for next semester/quarter, I thought this would be a good time to revisit the series. My previous post laid out the various caveats and biases I saw in my list, including their skewing to my interests and my training, which will likely lead to a slightly different list than others would create. As I was laying out a schedule for this series and revisiting my list of big ideas, however, I decided to change things up a bit by describing the ideas chronologically. This, then, triggered additional ideas about trends in the various big ideas. This post lays out these trends, while subsequent posts will discuss the ideas in turn.

My evolving list of 10 to 12 big ideas seems to fall into several periods of action, each of which has a theme:

  1. 1940s-1960s: The Birth of Prison Sociology 
  2. 1970s-1980s: Critical Looks at Punishment as Social Control, or the Futility of Reform  
  3. 1990s-2000s: Understanding the New Normal 
  4. 2010s: The Resurgence of General Theories of Penal Change 
These periods are not equally distributed. For example, in Period 1 (1940s-1960s), I basically combine the major concepts from prison sociology---inmate culture, prisonization, pains of imprisonment, and secondary adjustments---into one big idea. By contrast, Periods 2 (1970s-1980s) and 3 (1990s-2000s) have four or five distinct ideas in each. Period 4 (2010s) is difficult to assess because it is ongoing and I have yet to decide how much to discuss this period until we can better assess the long-term impact of these ideas, but it too is on the smaller side. 

I've never really thought about periodizing punishment and society research before, beyond a general cut-off around 1990 with the formalization of the field in the birth of our namesake journal and the publication of Garland's Punishment and Modern Society. I had always described punishment and society with a heavy leaning toward this more recent work: I would first say it's the field that generally treats punishment as a social institution, meaning it does not assume crime shapes punishment but instead describes how punishment and society are mutually constituted (or rather how society affects punishment and vice/versa)---borrowing heavily from my script for explaining law and society. I would then add that its main goal recently (for the last twenty-plus years) has been to understand the causes and consequences of the punitive turn, most notably the emergence of mass incarceration. This was always a little unsatisfying because it left out other studies that were clearly punishment and society, but I could never really articulate a way to link them together except by playing a few degrees of Kevin Bacon. 

When I taught punishment and society classes, I put the punitive turn at the center and set up the class to describe (1) what punishment was like before and what it's like elsewhere, and thus how the new approach is different, (2) what are the major components of the punitive turn, (3) what are its consequences, and (4) what do we think caused it (see this post). This seemed to me to be a pretty good representation of the field. (In an earlier version, I used the evolution of prison sociology to provide a window (problematic as it was) onto changes in doing time over time.) Certainly, I left out some things, but I got to teach these in my law and society class, my prison history class, or my org theory class. 

But thinking through the big ideas---thinking about what concepts or theories really left their mark and that we still see cited such that we can start to create a genealogy of the field (one that starts after Durkheim, Marx, and Weber)---helped me realize this longer periodization. It's also helping me to see  how ideas that might not really seem like they fit (e.g., classic prison sociology) do in fact fit together, but under the broader tent of punishment studies and how that field has evolved over time. In this case, the relationship between punishment and society is more flexibly defined and examined than the way I had conceived it. 

It's also interesting to think about how each of these periods responds to the major concerns of the time. In mid-century, a relatively consensus-heavy focus on society---and eventually membership in and exclusion from society. In the post-1969 period, the disappointment with society, the seemingly inevitable failure of reforms (for so many reasons), and the neo-Marxist approach are powerful. In the 1990s, we came to grips with one of the biggest changes in punishment---mass incarceration---and tried desperately to understand how it happened and what it means. Now that mass incarceration is no longer new and people are turning to new topics (including its future and the mixed attempts at reigning it in), and a new generation of scholars are emerging who were trained after the earlier backlash to general theories, we're starting to see people look beyond explaining the punitive turn and go back to making general statements about punishment---but with a twist, illustrating that they understand the problems with traditional general theories.  

When I turn to the individual posts, I will try to develop these themes more, but the main focus will be on the individual ideas themselves and, secondarily, how they relate to the general thrust of the literature at the time. 

Thursday, December 1, 2016

Members' Recent Publication Digest - December Edition

As compiled by Miltonette Craig:


Longazel, Jamie, Jake Berman, and Benjamin Fleury-Steiner. (2016). The Pains of Immigrant Imprisonment. Sociology Compass, 10(11), 989-998.

Rubin, Ashley T. (Forthcoming). Professionalizing Prison: Primitive Professionalization and the Administrative Defense of Eastern State Penitentiary, 1829-1879. Law & Social Inquiry, DOI: 10.1111/lsi.12263

Savelsberg, Joachim J. (2016). Representing Mass Violence in Darfur: Global, National and Field Factors. Zeitschrift für Genozidforschung, 14(1-2), 62-79.

Steele, Linda, Leanne Dowse, and Julian Trofimovs. (2016). Who Is Diverted?: Moving Beyond Diagnosed Impairment Towards a Social and Political Analysis of Diversion. Sydney Law Review, 38(2), 179-206.


Lynch, Mona. (2016). Hard Bargains: The Coercive Power of Drug Laws in Federal Court. New York: Russell Sage Foundation.

Savelsberg, Joachim J. (2016). Repräsentationen von Massengewalt: Strafrechtliche, Humanitäre, Diplomatische und Journalistische Perspektiven auf den Darfurkonflikt. (Representing Mass Violence: Conflicting Responses to Human Rights Violations in Darfur). Frankfurt: Vittorio Klostermann. (English text published in 2015 by the University of California Press. Open access version:

If you would like your recently published book or article to be included in the next digest,
please send your citation information to Miltonette Craig ( by January 31.