Archive for November, 2009

‘College Ivy Sprouts at a Connecticut Prison’ (New York Times, 16 November 2009)

November 17, 2009 Leave a comment

This is a hopeful media report about the criminal justice system.  Even though it is from America, it holds interesting lessons for Australians, in particular our HSC Legal Studies students studying the core topic on ‘Crime’.

Syllabus link: Crime – Effectiveness of our prison system, rights of victims versus rights of offenders

College Ivy Sprouts at a Connecticut Prison (New York Times, 16 November 2009)

One of the critical issue facing our prison system is the rate of recidivism.  Recidivism rate is the rate of reoffending among offenders.  According to figures from NSW Parliamentary research in 2006, “approximately 60% of those in custody in Australia have previously served a period of imprisonment“.  (‘Talina Drabsch, ‘Reducing the Risk of Recidivism‘, NSW Parliament Briefing Paper No. 15/2006)  This means over half of our prison population are trapped in a cycle of prison and crime.  Addressing recidivism rate is clearly an important issue.

This is what makes this article from New Y0rk Times particularly interesting. Wesleyan University, one of the top universities in the United States, has been running a program which enables prison inmates from Connecticut’s high-security prisons to gain a Wesleyan University undergraduate degree.

… each of the students — all men — had numbers like 271013 or 298331 on their khaki shirts. They were, in fact, inmates at the state prison here and all part of a daring, privately financed experiment in higher education that takes murderers and drug dealers and other inmates with histories of serious crime and gives them an opportunity to get an elite college education inside their high-security prison, the Cheshire Correctional Institution.

Entry into this prison academic program is based primarily on academic criterion.  Criminal record is not taken into consideration.  It is academically vigorously, but what it does offer to prison inmates a path back into social integration.  Even for inmates who would probably be spending their lifetime in prison, this university program offers them a genuine chance to gain the self-respect that they had craved.

… many of them speak with pure clarity about the reasons they were drawn to school again: idle curiosity, intellectual interest, a longing to be part of the big conversations of the day, and a desire for self-respect.

If one is to assess the effectiveness of this program in the context of the prison system, one would be inclined to judge this program quite favourably, especially since this is happening in a high-security prison, where inmates have a hard-core reputation.  However, this program’s effectiveness is limited by the fact it is, by its very own nature, only accessible to inmates with strong academic abilities.  Keep in mind though that this program does complement other vocational rehabilitation programs that exist in Connecticut high-security prisons.  Besides, if these inmates in the university program can set themselves as role models, that could improve the culture within the prison system. 

Clyde Meikle, 38, of Hartford is serving a 50-year sentence for fatally shooting a man with whom he tussled over a parking spot. Ten years ago, he earned his high school diploma in prison. He likes to set a positive example for what he calls “the younger cats.”

For me, it was a self-esteem thing,” he said.

However, the program does come under criticism from victim support groups who question whether this is money justifiably spent.

Crime victims and their advocates question whether the investment will be worthwhile. “I appreciate the need to educate offenders, but I’m saddened we don’t spend that kind of money or take that kind of time to rebuild the lives of crime victims,” said Michelle S. Cruz, Connecticut’s independent victim advocate.

Sam Rieger, a Waterbury man whose 19-year-old daughter was murdered by a man now incarcerated at the Cheshire prison, agreed. “This does not make sense to me,” he said of the Wesleyan program. “What is the point?” He said the money should be spent on victims or on trying to help young people make better choices.

Sam Riegar’s complaint is quite understandable, especially considering the grief of the victims and their desire for revenge, which our criminal justice system recognises.  Besides, unlike Australia where undergraduate education at elite universities is quite cheap through government loans, most elite universities are private and are usually not within easy reach of the lower-middle classes.  Victim support groups would understandably be perplexed and angered by how convicted criminals are being offered an education that they cannot easily afford. 

At the end of the day, the tension between the rights of offenders and the rights of victims is not one easily resolved.  Nonetheless, a sensible path should surely be one that offers a long term solution for the whole community.


‘Born Or Bred? Martin Bryant: The Making Of A Mass Murderer’ (Fairfax media, 26 April 2009)

November 11, 2009 Leave a comment

criminal justiceThis clip, which was posted on Fairfax media (Sydney Morning Herald) as well as YouTube contains interviews with Fairfax investigative journalists Robert Wainwright and Paola Totaro.

A written media report also accompanied the interview.  (See ‘Mass murderer wanted someone to stop him‘ (Sydney Morning Herald, 26 April 2009)).

What Wainwright and Totaro found about Martin Bryant was quite interesting and is particularly relevant to Legal Studies students seeking to understand causes of crime.

First of all, there is strong evidence that Martin Bryant, from a young age, had genetic dispositions that would led to him becoming a mass murderer in Port Arthur.

Yet that alone did not make a mass murderer.  What Martin Bryant also had was a very unloving and dysfunctional upbringing that helped to ‘nurture’ those violent tendencies.  Only his father understood what to do with him, but the premature death of Martin’s father would lead to a downward spiral for him.

So this is the point of this blog entry.  Genetics can be a possible cause of crime, but it manifests itself only with other environmental factors.