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October 24, 2013

Professor Black speaks on social roots of crime

By Daniel Herda

The research praxis of the sociological imagination was the subtext of the Butler Jones Lecture by Timothy Black, professor at Case Western Reserve and author of ‘The Heart Turns Rock Solid: Three Puerto Rican Brothers On and Off the Streets,’ held on October 17, 2013.

The Washington Post named his book one of the best research books of 2009, where 18 years of rigorous research went into it.

His work is about sociological storytelling. Black took demonized individuals and tried to humanize them so his readers can understand where they went wrong in their lives.

His research started in Springfield Massachusetts. Black picked high school teenagers to be a part of his in-depth study regarding poverty and gangs among Puerto Rican men. One of the three teenagers went by the name Fausto.

“I realized that Fausto was in the tenth grade and could not read or write,” said Black.

Black mentioned that a case like Fausto was not uncommon, adding that many Puerto Ricans that migrated to the U.S. in the 1980s had little to no education and were segregated to neighborhoods to where they were isolated economically and socially.

According to Black, Springfield community organizers sitting before the Massachusetts State Commission of Hispanic Affairs in 1984 warned the commission that because of the young alienated Puerto Rican population, rising gang activities, and the failure of high school teachers to reach Puerto Rican youths, a lost generation was being created.

“I am writing about a lost population, a population where many of them have not yet found a place,” Black said. “Like what happened to Fausto.”

When Fausto entered the eleventh grade he dropped out of high school and became involved in trafficking major loads of crack cocaine for a successful gang organization.

After the gang organization was busted, Fausto was on his own and selling $5 and $10 bags of cocaine for survival. Black kept in touch with Fausto through the entire time for his research.

“I would visit the gangs and never felt like I was in danger,” Black said. “Sometimes things got shaky and they would take me to a safe area to keep me out of harms way.”

Fausto was also struggling with a heroine addiction and went on a 10-day robbing spree and eventually was arrested for attempting to rob a bank.

Black was ready to publish his dissertation in 1993, just a few days after Fausto’s incarceration.

“At a time when my study was ending, I realized it was just beginning,” said Black.

Black went on to further research prison incarcerations related to drug activity.

He said that if he was to provide results for all adults who were being managed by the Criminal Justice System (adults who were either in prison, in jail, on probation, and on parole) that over 7.5 million people today have been sentenced by the CJS.

“One out of 31 adults are being managed by the CJS at any given time,” said Black.

Black further mentioned that one reason for this ratio was the stricter enforcement on America’s War on Drugs and how the CJS is focusing on incarceration rather than education and rehabilitation.

He said 19,000 inmates were sentenced in state prisons for drug related crimes in 1980 and it dramatically increased to over 225,000 in 2011. He mentioned that harsh treatments of prisoners are one reason that they are less likely to be rehabilitated.

After Fausto was incarcerated in 1993 there was a movement to get tough on prisoners in Massachusetts because of overcrowding and formation of gangs, led by William Weld, who was the governor from 1991 to 1997.

“Weld moved away from rehabilitation and focused on punishment,” said Black.

Many of the minority gang leaders, including Fausto, were placed in solitary confinement for over 14 months at a time and denied regular interaction with the general prison population.

Weld’s strategy was challenged by a prisoner rights organization, deeming it inhuman and focusing specifically on Latino minority groups and taken to the Massachusetts Supreme Court.

“The Massachusetts Supreme Court ruled in 2002 that solitary confinement was atypical that the due process had been denied,” Black said.  “We found out that Fausto was not the only one this was happening to.”

Black’s opinions about the CJS being too strict on drug crimes and gangs is also shared by United States Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy, where he spoke to the American Bar Association in 2003.

“Our criminal justice resources are misspent and our punishments are too severe, sentences are too long,” Kennedy said. “If we were fully exposed we would be startled by what we see.”

Today, Fausto has graduated from culinary school and is working as a chef. He is having difficulty getting a higher paid job because of his heavy record with the CJS.

Black read a letter to the audience in Fausto’s own words about how he viewed the CJS and the hard times he went through after he was released.

“When you come out into the real world it is hard to turn things off because they come at you in your dreams and the affects of prison are not seen right away, you see them when you are back in society,” Fausto said. “They disturb a part of your brain that is not meant to be disturbed.”

After the lecture was over, a few students asked Black questions about his research. One question asked Black what can society to start reaching struggling Latinos and other minority groups before it is too late.

Black said that it was a great question and answered that one way to solve it is to tell stories about change. He elaborated on the bigger picture of the question.

“We have to change public indifference about how low-educated minorities are viewed,” Black said. “We have criminalized young men of color, and one way is make drug addiction a public health issue rather than a criminal justice issue.”