Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Our Gulag


Hal Pepinsky,, “peacemaking” at

July 29, 2015


                In yesterday’s post, I commented on how fundamentally retributive the confinement of mass killer Anders Breivik shows even a remarkably non-punitive Norwegian penal law system to be.  Today, at, I was reminded that in extreme cases too, the US treatment of prisoners makes the treatment of Anders Breivik seem mild and progressive.  Moreover, our most mistreated prisoners are fleeing victimization, mainly women fleeing with their children to escape Central American violence—violence that results from a history of US economic and military occupation and support—effectively, a product of US colonization.

                I encourage readers today’s interview with an immigration lawyer and a social worker who resigned from a Texas detention camp run by GEO, hired by the Justice Department.  Ironically, the Justice Department, headed by the second person of color in a row, is now given ninety days by a federal judge to come up with a better plan for GEO facilities in Texas than releasing children with their mothers into the community, with the supervision and support of trained social workers.  (Should the court eventually order mothers to wear “ankle bracelets,” Geo already uses and can provide heavy, poorly functioning product made by a company GEO created.)

                The conditions described in today’s broadcast extend to forcefully giving children adult doses of hepatitis vaccine, and constantly separating children mothers…Bottom line, GEO represents the two basic flaws of privatization not only of “detention centers,” but of all privatization of services the government is obliged to provide:  The primary duty of the corporation is to maximize returns to shareholders; and while public records are open to public scrutiny, private records are subject only to subpoena for cause—private corporations are publicly unaccountable.  As GEO’s version of federal detention shows, privatization invites abuse of power, right down to abuse of child prisoners.  Insofar as how we treat our prisoners is a measure of how punitive people are generally, on a global scale, Norwegian political culture ranks low; US political culture is over the top.  Love and peace, hal

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

The Cultural Irony of Anders Breivik's Punishment


Hal Pepinsky,, “peacemaking” at

July 29, 2015


                My thanks for Dagrun Bennett for giving me her extra copy of journalist ╚Žsne Seierstad’s One of Us, a comprehensive report describing Anders Breivik’s 2011 killing a total of 77 people by detonating a bomb outside the Ministry of Justice and by shooting down youth and staff at an island Labor Party camp, in the name of white supremacy at the age of 32; interviewing and focusing most heavily on the loss and grief of the victims; and offering a psycho-history of Breivik including interviews.  Essentially, Breivik comes across as an isolated, bullied, angry wannabe super-hero, ridiculed and rejected even in the occult circles he tries to belong to.

                From Dagrun and other Norwegian(-Americans), and from Seierstad herself, I appreciate the enormous shock that “one of us” could bomb, shoot and kill more Norwegians than at any time since WWII, and cause such personal loss and pain, predominantly of youth, in a country with less than half the population of my home state, Ohio.

                What most captures my attention is Breivik’s punishment.  Norway is world renowned for its relatively low incarceration rate, and for its policy that “deprivation of liberty is the punishment,” under a penal code whose literal translation is “the punishment law.”  The policy means that prisoners normally have access to computers and higher education, that furloughs are liberal, that prisoners who are not out of hand circulate freely and spend time with guards trained as social workers, that in practice the most time the most serious criminals receive is 2/3 of 21 years tops.

Breivik’s 21-year sentence is subject to indefinite 5-year extensions for the rest of his life.  He is confined in one of three independently locked cells at a time—one with plumbing, one with a bolted-down typewriter, and one with a bed.  All is painted gray.  The only view from one window is of tree tops higher than the prison wall.  Each time Breivik asks for and gets transported across the common area, he is subject to strip search before entering another cell.  For this reason, he writes mostly by hand in his living area.  He is not allowed to put anything on his walls, or otherwise decorate his cells.  His mail in and out is heavily censored and often blocked.  In theory, he has practically no chance for conversation with staff, only the opportunity to file rather pathetic complaints.

Apparently, the seriousness of the harm done by the crime implies the degree to which Breivik is deprived of liberty.  From a safety standpoint, the greatest problem is what prisoners, let alone outside community members if he lived among them, would do to him.  He has demonstrated that he cannot even attain status as a political or military leader or organizer even if his mail, while read, were not censored.  The further conditions of his confinement are, practically speaking, gratuitous.  They are, as Nils Christie put it, inflictions of pain, of punishment, unadorned retribution, to recognize the enormity of the death and suffering of his victims, including those left behind.  Seierstad’s book title is ironic, for she depicts him as not now, nor from early childhood ever having been, “one of us.”  Breivik has been excommunicated, a Durkheimian act of mechanical solidarity to demonstrate what “we” are NOT.  If isolation and rejection were the source of Breivik’s violent outburst, further isolation and rejection are the remedy.

Beside US political culture, in prisons as in education, I regard Norwegians as remarkably non-punitive—at home, in schools and in prisons.  The Norwegian tradition of “samarbeid,” translated as “cooperation,” literally translated “working together,” is remarkably strong.  The treatment of Anders Breivik reflects, even in what I have called a relatively “peaceful society,” there is an underlying conviction that those who wittingly hurt others must be named, blamed, and “given consequences,” or otherwise certified personally defective, no matter how otherwise “civilized” we become.

It is a paradox of efforts to make peace that when we feel violated, fear, pain and anger incline us to retaliate.  We may differ on whether retaliation is deserved or humane and caring, we may bury our fear, pain and resentment, we may civilize and refine punishment and confinement, but the feelings are undeniable.  So in victim-offender mediation, for example, it is vital that any attempts at conciliation be preceded by safe and ample opportunity to share and obtain acceptance and understanding of those feelings.  Or in South Africa, “reconciliation” with the violence of apartheid was conditioned on first obtaining “truth.”  Fear, pain and anger denied cannot become fear, pain and anger assuaged.  Once recognized and accepted, fear, pain and anger can become a prelude to samarbeid, to (re-)building mutual trust and acceptance.  Other than retaliation, the only option is indifference.  In that sense, the Norwegian response to Breivik’s violence indicates that he is indeed “one of us.”  Which leads me to a proposition: that would-be peacemakers know us all to be a lot more violent than those who would make war on wrongdoers allow themselves to imagine.  In moments of fear, pain and anger, peacemaking as doing things with others requires acknowledgment and safe, honest expression of our impulse to determine what is done to and for them.  The impulse to return violence with violence, suffering with suffering, lies in us all.  Love and peace, hal

Monday, July 27, 2015

Doing things to, for, or with others?

Hal Pepinsky,, “peacemaking” at
July 27, 2015

                In the introduction to my first book (Crime and Conflict: A Study of Law and Society, 1976; pdf copies on request, and under “articles” at I write that that “study” began with an encounter with Swedish psychologist Magnus Hedberg, as I was on my way home with my parents from having spent my last year of secondary school in Trondheim’s Cathedral School.  Magnus asked me what “democracy” meant to me as I went off to college seeking to follow in Clarence Darrow’s legal footsteps (see Attorney for the Damned).  I borrowed from Lincoln’s Gettysburg address to become an officer of court in a government of the people, by the people, and for the people, to make law work for the people.  Magnus had me elaborate on what I meant by my vision of being a lawyer for the people, then asked: What about doing things WITH people?  I responded that I saw no difference between doing things for and with people.  He responded: You’ll have no problem returning to America.  After my year of trying hard to fit in with Norwegians, I felt challenged to understanding what difference the attitude of doing WITH people makes, for others and my sense of safety, trust, and value with others—particularly in cases at all intra-/interpersonal levels that are driven by fear and distrust, a way of defining and responding to “violence” which I have come to call “peacemaking.”
                Leslie T. Wilkins had by then taught me to see that the overwhelming problem of the boundaries of criminological knowledge and practice was “treating the problem as the problem of the criminal.”  The criminological and mental health divide between punishment and treatment (so-called “liberal criminology” and “treatment options” in broader contexts, as for “at-risk” youth beginning in the latter 19th century with institution of reformatories and “reform schools”) continue, where providing services “for” assessed as “at risk” or legally dangerous to themselves and others is held out as a way to “end mass incarceration” in my country.  If you’re opposed to punishing offenders, treatment alternatives or “intervention” is where alternatives lie.  From measuring crime by prison counts and convictions to law enforcement data, waves of political preference for punishment and confinement, and for rehabilitation and treatment of offenders and the mentally ill, continue to succeed one another, most recently in using “broken windows” data to show how police reduce crime by making petty public order arrests.
                At the same time, including among those charged with enforcing the law and treating (potential) offenders and the mentally ill, indeed in all our relations, I find ways we do things WITH people in practice—transforming the authority to do things to or for people into a mutually controlled and guided process of building common ground, including police officers, judges, probation, parole and prison officers, with those they encounter.  In formal legal terms, from Chinese dynastic law through “conferencing,” it is “mediation” or “conflict” or “dispute resolution” in contrast to adjudication and arbitration (though often one-sided in practice).  I thank my Scandinavian friends and teachers, who have brought with-ness to my conscious attention.  I have come to know it also as feminist praxis, as circle processes, as empathic relations physically, and as compassion in spirit.  Peacemaking happens in moments where participation and creation of what to do next is balanced, where in substantive outcomes and agreements to terms include terms created in a process of mutual validation and accommodation, where participants create their own social contracts rather than by prescription or order, by sharing power rather than by exercises of power over others, whether it is done to or for them.  Fifty-four years later, I owe Magnus Hedberg credit for guiding me to the fundamental realization that peacemaking lies in coming to terms with rather than to or for others, regardless of the formal structures in which we relate.  Love and peace, hal  

Friday, July 10, 2015

"No Child Left Behind" means leaving children behind


Hal Pepinsky,, “peacemaking” at

July 10, 2015


                Whatever emerges from the current US Congressional and Executive debate over how to renew the 2001 No Child Left Behind Act, the federal government will continue to collect nationally standardized test results on schoolchildren from the age of 8 on, and states and school districts will be given power to use those results to hold back students, to set pay or fire teachers, and most dramatically, to close both public and private schools.  (Interestingly, home schooling is never mentioned.)  Like measures of “crime” and “criminality,” National grade-by-grade standardized test results have become embedded politically as the index of whether children are failing, succeeding in learning what everyone needs to know, in the order in which every student needs to learn it.

                The very existence of standardized scores implies their political validity for use in determining relative success and failure in learning and teaching.  If it were granted that a student who scored in a low percentile might still be learning in equally significant ways and in different progressions, there would be no point in going to the expense of paying experts to construct and administer the tests and standardize the results.  If results are socially and politically valid indicators, there must be a percentage of test-takers whose results are unacceptable.  They, their teachers or their schools have failed.  It is inevitable that odds of success and excellence will favor those who group in places and families most highly represented among the learned test-makers—the substance and hierarchy of the test questions closer to the learning experience of children in their social milieu.  Combine this social and political bias as to what should be known when and what demonstrates learning with the privatization of tax-funded schooling, and “no child left behind” becomes validation of the socio-economic status quo—that their inferiors really deserve to be left behind.  Our ignorance of the many things “they” know that “we” learn becomes all the more invincible, more firmly embedding de facto segregation in US schooling, all the way through higher education where the science of “curving” grades has greatly evolved since I started there.

                In my last blog post, “beyond passing judgment” (July 7), I criticized the bias implicit in degrading the status of entire persons based on a single act.  Deciding students, teachers and schools fail when they don’t bring test scores up above a certain percentage of other test-takers is a case in point.  Love and peace, ha

Wednesday, July 8, 2015

beyond passing judgment

                                                                     BEYOND PASSING JUDGMENT

Hal Pepinsky,, “peacemaking” at

July 8, 2015


                In his interview on NPR’s “Fresh Air” July 6, Temple University law professor Adam Benforado outlined the manifold biases that permeate criminal justice decision-making, from authority given to confessions and eyewitness descriptions and identification, through jurors’ reaction to witness physical attractiveness, to parole board members denying parole more consistently as their working days pass, as presented in his book Unfair (  His case for the unfairness of criminal justice decision-making is strong.

                Mr. Benforado, as educator, argues that the more aware we become of how these biases apply to people like ourselves, in our positions, the more we can recognize and learn to discount them, the more we can correct for them; on this, I agree.  But he implies that when biases are stripped away, what remains is objective, without bias; and on this, I disagree.

                Like Mr. Benforado, I have long held the conviction that the very operating definitions criminologists use to study “crime,” let alone “criminality,” are biased.  For me, the conviction was rooted in my dissertation study of police decisions to report offenses in a “high-crime” area of Minneapolis (findings published in Journal of Research in Crime and Delinquency 13 (Jan. 1976): 33-47; pdf available on request).  There I found that if the dispatcher told patrol officers to check a crime, and the officers found a complainant who alleged any offense, they reported an offense.  If not, with marginal exceptions, they did not, regardless of whether a complainant reported what constituted an offense.  Beyond what police did and did not report, there remained the biases that students of white-collar and state crime have described, which lead to the structural stereotype that underclass young people (men in particular, today in white societies young men of color) are more likely to commit crime than the rest of us.

                In Stigma I1963), Erving Goffman gave voice to what I perceive to be crucial to our sense of social security, of acceptance and appreciation, controlling what he termed “status identification,” especially so in an individualistic order in which status can be gained and lost in so many ways.  On one hand, we depend on maintaining status, and in which so many of us are driven by “growing”—by achieving recognition for climbing still higher, as in “staying ahead of the economy” (which Max Weber labeled The Protestant Ethic).  Having a sense of controlling one’s identity is crucial to one’s sense of personal and social safety and acceptance.  As Goffman proposes, control becomes a burden, a source of fear and anxiety, when one feels one has to pretend to something other than what one feels one is, lest one fall from social grace.  In a safe world, as we are discovering with acceptance of same-sex marriage, one enjoys the freedom to define oneself as one feels and aspires to become openly, without stigma—to feel honest and true to oneself in one’s relations.  Basically, we derive our sense of social security from being known by the identities we are permitted to construct for ourselves.

                In his seminal publication, Harold Gafinkel had defined the problem of having one’s identity adversely defined by others “status degradation rituals” (a foundation for his “ethnomethodology”; American Journal of Sociology 61 (Mar. 1956: 420-424).  Edwin Lemert later called the process of creating “secondary deviation” “labeling.”  My home fields of criminology and criminal justice center of what makes and prevents people from being degraded to the status of “offender.”  We intersect closely with the study and prevention of what makes people turn out to be “mentally ill or deficient.”  What a person has done or might do defines what the person essentially is.  It implies that the person needs removal, supervision, treatment, or punishment.  In Alice Miller’s terms, degradation implies personal failure which demands the need to do things to lesser beings For Your Own Good if “rehabilitative” or “therapeutic,” and if necessary—as Scandinavians put it, to deprive someone of liberty, if not life itself.  One’s record, one’s diagnosis, one’s low grade or score, becomes the central definition of one’s identity, by imposition rather than by choice.  In war, it becomes a matter of identifying and defeating one’s enemies.  Altogether, it amounts passing judgment on one another--the basis of the conviction that some of us are entitled to exert power over others.  It is one thing to enjoy the satisfaction of holding or attaining a position in a social structure; it is another to be hurt, diminished, excluded or confined by a status that is imposed.  From wealth inequality to punishment of wrongdoers and failing schoolchildren, to assault and homicide, to all parallel personal and structural forms of what Garfinkel calls status degradation, with thanks to Johan Galtung, I apply the label “violence.” 

                My mother and father made conscious decisions as doctoral students in psychology to learn and apply knowledge of normality rather than “deviation” or mental illness.  Although licensed, they identified themselves as “counseling” rather than “clinical” psychologists.  And so my mother, whose early research focused on identifying conditions under which groups embraced “non-conforming” contributions to group tasks as “productive,” bemoaned my decision to become a criminologist, a student of deviance in “that desolate field.”  My response has been to focus on the problem of not of how to defeat or erase violence, but of how the stigmatized parts of ourselves become transcended by appreciation and acceptance of other parts, in relationships of mutual trust, honesty and appreciation, where the label ceases to define one’s being.  In Nils Christie’s terms (in Limits to Pain, 1981), it is a condition of being or becoming known in many respects, rather than as one kind of person or group member.

                 I question Mr. Benforado’s proposition that awareness and compensation for our biases implies bias-free decisions.  The very idea that an entire person should be differentially treated as an “offender,” an enemy, a form of inferior being, is a leap in logic, a fundamental bias in itself.  The bias cannot be eliminated, but it can be transcended by changing the focus of conversation, as I attempted to do as a victim-offender mediator by laying down a cardinal rule against name-calling, versus describing what one had done, felt and suffered, and discussing responses until everyone in the room had said what s/he felt needed to be said.  As a teacher, it became my challenge to “grade by not grading” students for the quality of the substance of what they wrote about addressing problems of violence, but addressing course material substantially and in a timely matter in writing (finding that grammar, spelling, and clarity of expression spontaneously improved as I responded to substance rather than evaluating how well it was said).  With (ex-)prisoners, it has been about mutual learning and sharing based on where we are here and now, rather than on “their offenses.”  With children, it has become a matter of learning from what they see, feel and want as much as I seek to convey my own “wisdom” and wants to them.  All in all, I enter conflict and differences with a bias that my job is to learn from others as I might have them learn from me, to discover what I will do as I discover what they will do.  In myself as I find it in others, I analogize this process of allowing redefinition of one another to the joy and security I find in singing to harmonize with others.  As a fellow mediator put it to me, building trust and social security in the face of violence entails “trusting the process” of letting go of one’s attachment to a definition of who’s who or what’s what, in Roger Fisher’s terms in Getting to Yes, from establishing positions to learning and accommodating to one another’s interests in what comes next.  It is a process where giving and receiving empathy—understanding others in their terms rather as one seeks to be understood in one’s own—supplants conviction that others are essentially wrongheaded. I call that response to difference and conflict “peacemaking.”  As a response to conflict and difference, peacemaking is an inherently subjective frame of reference, as is defining how we respond to conflict and difference by categorizing what we and others are.  As my mentor Les Wilkins put said of his home fields of criminology and criminal justice and mine, we are largely stuck in the bias of defining the problem presented by “crime” as the problem of “the criminal.”  To borrow Mr. Benforado’s term, I find that bias to be inherently unfair.  Love and peace, hal