Andy's Math/CS page

Thursday, November 08, 2007

Limits of Transcendence: Our Failure to Protect Prisoners

One thing I'd long been planning to post about is just how positive a role math has played in my own life. Since I came to enjoy it (relatively late--around senior year in high school), I have become: less restless; less materialistic; clearer and more self-reliant in my thinking; able to think longer and more fruitfully about all kinds of things, with nothing but a pen and paper.

All of these beneficial effects constitute, to my mind, a 'practical application' for math that warrants mentioning in the same breath as its uses in science and technology. In particular, I always thought these virtues seemed especially well-suited to empower and improve the constrained lives of prisoners. I know of one example--Paul Turan seems to have invented extremal graph theory in a Hungarian labor camp during WWII--but Turan was admittedly already a professional mathematician. Of course math isn't for everyone, but I would be very interested to know whether it's been taught specifically for enjoyment in prisons, and with what results.

It's an exciting idea to me, and I hope it excites others. However, it'd be irresponsible and dishonest to pursue it without acknowledging math's limits as a life practice. Coping with boredom is one thing, but, speaking personally, my mathematical thinking goes to pieces when I'm in acute distress or suffering. There's a limit to what we should reasonably expect to transcend through math, just as with art, religion, meditation, and other such 'soft' techniques... which brings me to what actually prompted this post: news from California that makes me ashamed of the state of affairs in my home state.

According to this article (see also this Times editorial), Gov. Schwarzenegger recently vetoed a bill that would allow nonprofits to distribute condoms in prisons. (He claimed it would conflict with the law against sexual contact between inmates.) It seems he did something similar two years ago. There are some condom distributions in CA prisons, and Schwarzenegger authorized one new, small-scale pilot program, but he derailed the state legislature's decision to make such distributions a statewide reality.

I hope the cruelty and stupidity of this decision speak for themselves, but I'll make a few comments to encourage further thought, because a decision this bad needs to be understood as well as denounced. To try and make (partial) sense of his decision, let me suggest that, in policymaking and debate around HIV/AIDS and other sexually transmitted infections, there are various gradations of the position that would block direct public health initiatives.

First, there are those who simply disapprove of a particular behavior, be it pre- or extramarital sex, same-gender sex, sex in prisons, or intravenous drug use. It doesn't necessarily lead them to disregard other social issues or form a blanket policy statement.

Then there are those who, through a combination of wishful thinking and manipulation, reach the idea that the health threat posed by risky behaviors might itself be the best deterrent against these behaviors, superior from a moral and public health perspective to interventions that would make those behaviors safer (condom distributions, needle exchanges, HPV vaccinations, etc). They accept arguments to this effect without sufficient critical thought, and neglect contrary evidence.

Then there are those who publicly espouse this best-of-both-worlds notion, but whose prolonged refusal to engage with the evidence leads one to suspect that either (a) they no longer feel compassion for victims of infection from their designated 'deviant' population groups, or (b) they feel that infection's (supposed) role in discrediting and deterring 'deviant' behavior outweighs its human costs (so, in a sense, they ally themselves with the epidemic).

Finally, at the far end you have those who feel only contempt for 'deviants', and openly exult in public health crises which they see as just punishment.

But can we explain Schwarzenegger's behavior as occupying a point along this spectrum? I'm not so sure. As soon as incarceration comes into play, the debate seems to get much more complex (i.e., crazier). Are these notions of morality and deterrence even operative in the (supposedly kinda-socially-liberal) Governor's decision? Is he offering a feeble cover for the prison industry from the already-widespread recognition that, in many cases, they fail to protect their inmates from sexual coercion? (For a discussion of the state of available statistics on prison rape see this Human Rights Watch page.) Or is he merely bowing to the time-honored tradition of abusing prisoners?

I would love to hear what others think, because I can't decide the issue myself. All that's clear to me is that he's taken citizens in a position of enforced vulnerability, who are contracting HIV at eight times the rate outside prison, and cut off one of the most important means of protecting them. (I don't believe the state was even asked to pay for the condoms....!)

Meanwhile--Governor Schwarzenegger, withdraw your veto!


  • How would condoms "protect" prisoners in a rape? They seem to only protect the rapists.

    Suppose a dominant prisoner becomes HIV positive. Why would this prisoner, in the act of raping another, stop to put on a condom?

    On the other hand, with the presence of condoms, victims with STDs would probably get raped much more than before. The rapist is now safe!

    The point is, there seems to be another problem beyond that of disease-spreading...

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 6:48 PM  

  • A few points in response.

    -I don't mean to suggest that condoms are in any way a complete solution to the problems that beset prisons and prisoners.

    -It is possible to imagine scenarios like the ones you mention. They pose valid social-scientific questions, which I hope have been or are being investigated. But I suspect that both negative claims about condoms (HIV+ rapists won't use them, HIV+ prisoners will be victimized more) are mitigated in several ways:

    First, sexual activity cannot always be neatly divided into consensual and coerced, and I think that much sex in prison falls somewhere in between, having the character not of outright assault but of a transaction, e.g. sex for protection, and with the threat of violence somewhat backgrounded. In such cases it seems plausible that the dominant inmate would agree to use a condom if available (as would partners in fully-consensual sex, which surely is present as well).
    Of course, prisoners need to be protected from 'soft' coercion as well as outright assault, which is why I am willing to consider supporting the law against sex between inmates despite its illiberalism.

    So, that's one reason dominant inmates might wear condoms. Another is that many inmates are unaware of their status and/or their partners' or victims'. (HIV doesn't show up on tests for 6 months, and inmates may not be tested.)

    As for whether condom availability would encourage more rapes, it amounts to asking whether their unavailability is currently deterring rape. I think the evidence suggests that lack of access to condoms and other protection is a pretty ineffective deterrent against sex, free or coerced, inside or outside of prison. In prison, where there is a lower average level of education and where individuals are (understandably) more vulnerable to depression and hopelessness, I would expect the deterrence effect to be even weaker.

    Of course this is ultimately an empirical question; but even if it were stronger, I think a deterrence-based policy is simply unethical. Prisoners deserve access to condoms, unconditionally, and we have no right to use the deadly threat of AIDS to police our prisons.

    By Blogger Andy D, at 11:33 AM  

  • Great post!

    The answer to your question is of course political, not moral. I think it's not a moral issue at all. It's Public Relations 101: If you are allowing condoms to be distributed in prisons, then you are acknowledging that prison rapes occurs (and then the public asks you why you're not taking care of the problem). The whole issue is taboo. Worse yet, Schwarzenegger is from the Republican party. Distributing condoms in prisons can and will be interpreted as supporting homosexuality. The governator, as far as I can tell, seems like a fairly liberal guy for a Republican. However, his party is not. In order to indulge in such communist hippy behavior such as protecting the environment, he needs to abide by his party's unwritten(?) rules. Which definitely means no condoms given to prisoners in media-hyped events.

    Which is exactly the point, I think. I would guess that the California leftists had the following stream of thought: Maybe the reason a Republican is elected to be the governor of CA is that he's way to liberal, i.e. too much to the left. The way to stop his election next time is to make him appear more right-wing. How will we do that? We'll propose a clearly left-wing initiative, that he cannot possibly accept due to his party's restrictions, and will thus make him look more right-wing, and less electable by the moderate left. That' typical leftist behavior throughout the world. (It's not necessary unacceptable behavior, it's just very righteous, in the sense that they know damn well that the governor cannot support the initiative).

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 3:00 AM  

  • Nice segue from math to the material conditions of prisons.
    Politics and even the legislation aside, I do think that anonymous had a good point about how condoms as a variable will affect the whole very tragic problem. In other words, how used ARE they?
    You make a good point that that question is basically null... for a liberal, which I am. So, I personally would say that flooding the prison with all the glow-in-the-dark, banana-flavored, or other rainbow of varietals (that we were afforded in our radical k-12 education) can really do no harm. (I would seriously doubt that the lack, as you say, of condoms are deterring rapes.)

    Politically, this is more complicated and our Republican governor would not--COULD not espouse the position.

    However, I am going to beg the bigger picture and say that we need prison reform. Period. Prisons need to be more protective of their inmates from each other and from the criminal system that pervades the penal one, and we need to have a better understanding of how this can be accomplished. Sociological studies, even surveys, might be one way to jump through all the hypothetical.

    All in all, disregarding the moral aggregiousness of Shwarzenegger's supporters, his public, political position is certainly worth protesting, but it needs to be in the context of making reform a viable and effective reality.

    By Anonymous karin d, at 10:35 PM  

  • hi

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    By Blogger Arvind, at 5:25 PM  

  • An off-topic comment, Andy. Now that you are visiting MIT, see if you can visit Pete Winkler at Dartmouth (whose book(s) you have blogged about). You two have a strong common interest in puzzles -- and if you haven't met him yet, you will discover that he is a real Mensch.


    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 8:20 AM  

  • Good idea, thanks!

    By Anonymous Andy, at 4:47 PM  

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