Teaching Points– Paul Draus Comments on “Ghettos and Prisons”

Professor Paul Draus (photo: Nate Mullen)

Editor’s Note: In today’s Teaching Points commentary, the third in our series, sociologist Paul Draus discusses the aims of the Inside- Out Program, of which his “Ghettos and Prisons” class is an iteration, and the formative place that drugs play in the world(s) the class examines.

For those not familiar with the Inside-Out Prison Exchange Program, courses are composed of fifteen ”outside” students from a college or university and fifteen incarcerated “inside” students.   All Inside-Out instructors are intensively trained in the methods and framework of the program, but individual instructors may adapt the course content to reflect their own interests or areas of training.  (For more information on the Inside-Out Program, see their website.)

My Inside-Out course is entitled “Ghettos & Prisons: Dynamics of Stigma and Segregation in Society.”   Although it does not focus specifically on drugs or drug use, the role of illicit drugs is of central importance in the history of urban segregation, when considered either as a cause or as an effect.  Perhaps more crucially, given the composition of the class, the illicit drug trade is a fundamental fact of life in the communities where most of the inside students resided before incarceration.

The following two examples, from reflection papers written by inside students, illustrate this point.  In the first case, “Man” describes how his own trajectory was influenced by drug use in his family and community.In the second sample, “Spoon” adopts a somewhat broader scope and discusses the role of drugs in his community on the West Side of Detroit.These two excerpts reveal the complex interconnection between drugs and environments, where drugs may be viewed as both an effect of structural phenomena, such as deindustrialization, racial segregation and structural unemployment, but also a contributing factor in vicious cycles of neighborhood crime, violence, neglect and abuse.  Our class focused on the complex interconnection between historical, social, cultural and behavioral factors that contribute to continuing cycles of poverty, crime, violence and incarceration—vicious cycles which the justice system itself has so far been unable to address.  We studied the links between “Ghettos and Prisons,” though what we really discovered is that, in many ways, “Ghettos are Prisons.”

One exercise that we use in the class is called the “Social Barometer,” which was developed by Lora Lempert, my colleague at the University of Michigan-Dearborn.  It involves a simple division of the classroom into four sections, labeled Agree, Strongly Agree, Disagree and Strongly Disagree.  The professor then reads a statement, and the students respond by moving to the section of the room that best aligns with their views.   Some sample statements might be “I believe that women need men to protect them,” or “When I see four young black man walking towards me, my first reaction is to walk to the other side of the street.” Once students have moved to their sections, intense discussions tend to ensue, as students explain why they took their position, and other students respond. While one might anticipate heated arguments and disagreements, what actually comes out of this is something much more nuanced and meaningful—an enhanced appreciation of the role of context in both shaping one’s own ideas about the social world, as well as one’s responses to the views of others.  In other words, individual students must examine why they hold the positions they hold, what those positions are based on, and how others might have logically arrived at very different positions based on their own contexts and experiences.  The two questions above are admittedly loaded, but for this very reason they elicit a range of reactions that enable us to get at underlying preconceptions concerning gender and race.

Context is Everything

The University students, who are usually majority female, may bristle when male students “Strongly Agree” that women need to be protected by men.  But then an inside student might explain that he was taught this by his own mother, who told him he had to look out for his sisters in the neighborhood.  On the other hand, some inside students were protected by their mothers or older sisters, and they might disagree just as strongly as some of the women students.

On the question of crossing to the other side of the street, some of the students respond in ways that reflect not only their own experience but their ideas about what is considered “racist.”   It is therefore sometimes surprising for the University students to see incarcerated African-American men strongly agreeing with this statement.  “If I don’t have a gun,” an inside student might say, “I am definitely getting out of the way.”  This may then lead to a frank discussion of neighborhood conditions that many inside students accept as normal and natural, but which are outside the scope of many university students’ experiences.  This is not true for all of the outside students, of course—every class has one or two inside and outside students who have lived on both sides, and personally experienced the dramatic divides between them.  But for many others, it is an eye-opening and even painful thing to learn.

After learning the ugly history of racial segregation and its lasting legacies in urban communities such as Detroit, students sometimes feel helpless and overwhelmed.  One of our “inside” students stated that growing up in a “ghetto” neighborhood was sort of like being told to put together a chair, but without having all of the necessary parts.   You start out trying to follow the directions, but eventually you get frustrated and throw the whole thing away.  The path to prison is too often paved with such frustrations.

The New Jim Crow

From this perspective, life in society may seem like a series of cruel traps set to spring with each misstep.  As the recent Trayvon Martin case painfully reminds us, the daily experiences of Americans are still sharply divided by race.  For White Americans, the justice system is often perceived as helpful and celebrated as heroic.  For too many Black Americans, on the other hand, the justice system represents an additional threat to safety and an active impediment to success.  This is why Michelle Alexander’s book The New Jim Crow has struck such a chord and sparked such debate.  Mass incarceration, in terms of both costs and consequences, is now being widely questioned.

In fact, the inadequacies of the current system are implicit in Michigan Governor Rick Snyder’s recent call for a system of “Smart Justice,” which “will hold chronic offenders accountable for their actions, bring peace of mind to community residents, help to break the cycles that perpetuate crime, and unleash Michigan’s economic growth.”  Mayor Dave Bing has also stated that “more enforcement is not the answer.”  However, as Police Chief Ralph Godbee has pointedly observed, “environmental factors are stacked against our young people in the City of Detroit.”  Of course, one of those environmental factors is the drug trade.  But what would a “Smart Justice” approach to problem drug use entail, aside from more prosecutions and longer sentences, the failed approaches of the past?

At the end of their Inside-Out course, our students work in blended inside/outside groups, to come to grips with these problems, to see with fresh eyes while also being accountable to the facts, to work together, across lines of race, gender, ethnicity, residence, religion, and education, to fashion some sensible strategies for improving the state, cities, neighborhoods and society in which we all live.  They invariably develop plans that emphasize the proliferation of positive alternatives, not the piling-on of negative sanctions.  They commonly conclude that the solution to crime is clearly not building more prisons, but rebuilding communities; targeting not only individuals, but environments; not just shackling youth with criminal records, but wrapping them in supportive relationships.   They present these ideas to an audience of university and prison administrators, members of the media and the legislature, community leaders and advocates, and each other.  While there are no magic bullets that will cut the tortured knots that history, culture and politics have bound about us, at the end of the class one can’t help but feel that something better is possible.

“Outside” Students Present Ideas to Detroit City Council President Charles Pugh
(Professor Paul Draus, far left)