Category Archives: Uncategorized

The Question of Dirty Work

Eyal Press contends there are entire areas of life we’ve delegated to “dirty workers”—functions we’ve declared necessary, but that we strive to keep hidden. In his new book, Dirty Work: Essential Jobs and the Hidden Toll of Inequality in America, Press points to the transformation of jails and prisons into the country’s largest mental health institutions. He calls the people struggling to offer treatment in those settings “dirty workers”—not because their work isn’t noble, but because collectively we’ve put them in a situation where it’s impossible to practice ethical care.

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Hear a related New Thinking episode with Homer Venters, the former chief medical officer for NYC Jails.

Taking Reform Out of Its Comfort Zone

Justice reforms often exclude people with charges involving violence, even though these are the same people most likely to be incarcerated and to be in the most need of the programs and treatment reform can bring. But a felony court in Manhattan is offering alternatives to incarceration, regardless of charge. Can a treatment-first approach be brought to scale inside of the same system responsible for mass incarceration in the first place?

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The Crisis on Rikers Island

An audio snapshot from an emergency rally demanding immediate measures to release people from New York City’s Rikers Island jail. Eleven people have died in the custody of the city’s jail system this year as Rikers’ chief medical officer warns of “a collapse in basic jail operations.”

Cages Don’t Help Us Heal

Hurt people hurt people. That’s not an excuse for harm, but it fuels much of the criminal legal system. At 19, Marlon Peterson was the unarmed lookout on a robbery where two people were killed. Peterson spent a decade behind bars. He writes about those years, and the childhood in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, that preceded them, in his new memoir, Bird Uncaged: An Abolitionist’s Freedom Song. I made my own choices, Peterson says, “but I also did not choose to experience the type of things I experienced.”

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One of These Days We Might Find Us Some Free: Reginald Dwayne Betts

In 1996, 16-year-old Reginald Dwayne Betts was sentenced to nine years in prison for a carjacking. He spent much of that time reading, and eventually writing. After prison, he went to Yale Law School and published a memoir and three books of poems. But he’s still wrestling with what “after prison” means. This is a conversation about incarceration, Blackness, and the weight of history, both political and personal. Betts’s most recent collection of poems is Felon.

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This episode was originally released in January 2020.

The Cycle: Police Violence, Black Rebellion

In her new book, historian Elizabeth Hinton highlights a “crucible period” of often violent rebellions in the name of the Black freedom struggle beginning in 1968. Initiated in almost every instance by police violence, the rebellions—dismissed as “riots”—have been largely written out of the history of the civil rights era. Hinton contends the period is critical for understanding the roots of mass incarceration and contains important lessons today for people organizing against police violence.

Hinton’s book is America on Fire: The Untold History of Police Violence and Black Rebellion Since the 1960s.

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Policing, Race, and a Crisis in Mental Health

One of every four people killed by police is experiencing a mental health emergency. Changing how we respond to crisis in the moment, and to widespread, ongoing mental health needs, means deferring to the leadership of people with lived experience and putting racial equity at the center of every reform. On today’s episode, listening to the people who know how to fix systems, because they’re surviving those systems’ harms.

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Does the Criminal Justice System Cause Crime?

What’s the most effective way to reduce the chance of an arrest in the future? A new study suggests it’s shrinking the size of the justice system in the here and now. Boston D.A. Rachael Rollins and the director of NYU’s Public Safety Lab, Anna Harvey, talk about the benefits of not prosecuting low-level charges—an almost 60 percent reduction in recidivism—and the challenges, even with data in hand, of bucking the conventional wisdom.

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Hear Rachael Rollins’s 2019 appearance on New Thinking

How Will the Death Penalty End?

Journalist Maurice Chammah says the federal execution spree during the final weeks of the Trump presidency is evidence of the death penalty’s continued decline, not its resurgence. Chammah is the author of the new book, Let the Lord Sort Them: The Rise and Fall of the Death Penalty.

Chammah tracks the long arc of the death penalty—its use and its symbolism—alongside the evolution of the criminal justice system as a whole. And he grounds his discussion in American history, particularly the history of Texas, the epicenter of the American death penalty.

In Texas, Chammah contends, a romantic myth about rough frontier justice has been used to obscure the extent to which state-sanctioned execution grew out of mob-driven lynchings, generally of Black men, common across the South after the Civil War until well into the twentieth century.

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COVID-19 Behind Bars: A Pandemic of Neglect

Homer Venters has been inspecting prisons, jails, and ICE detention centers for COVID-compliance almost since the start of the pandemic. The former chief medical officer for New York City jails says what were already substandard health systems and abusive environments have deteriorated sharply, where even people positive for the virus can languish unseen for days. Any fix to health care behind bars, he says, has to start with listening to the people these facilities have worked to silence: those with lived experience of the conditions.

Full show notes

Listen back to Venters’s New Thinking interview, ‘Jail-Attributable Deaths’