Blog dedicated primarily to randomly selected news items; comments reflecting personal perceptions

Sunday, June 03, 2018

Treating A Community To Treat Criminal Offenders

Former gang members Neil Snowden (left) and Niko Williams (right) say CeaseFire completely changed their lives along with their attitudes about violence and retaliation.
Cheryl Corley/NPR
"I've never seen anyone be killed."
"I'm 54 years old and I think I will probably not see that in my life."
Bruce Western, sociologist
Well, Mr. Western's experience lacked exposure to the kind of raw life-and-death values that many inner-city children with underprivileged backgrounds consider to be part of their growing years, inuring them to violence. Because it is so prevalent in the society that they inhabit they think it is normal. For whatever effect it has on them; revulsion, fear, it has become normalized through repetition and they accept that because they have been patterned to do so.

Which is why when Boston researchers asked 122 men and women who were part of a study of prisoners having served their sentences for crime committed, and were asked a series of questions about their childhood, the last question being had they ever seen someone killed?, an astonishing 42 percent responded in the affirmative. They were not only patterned to accept that lethal violence was part of their social background, that patterning and that acceptance trained them to follow similar paths.
"A disease is a condition with identifiable symptoms that causes sickness or death. That describes violence."
"And we know it spreads itself. There is overwhelming evidence that hurt people hurt other people."
"The reasons the young man stays on the corner might be completely different from what we imagine. He might, after all, want that park job, and want to get off the corner, but not know how [to]."
Tina Rosenberg, journalist
Image: Fabrizio Rinaldi/Flickr

Enter epidemiologist Dr. Gary Slutkin. His experience has been with containing contagious diseases. And his experience expanded to encompass a 23-year-old program named Cure Violence which began in Chicago and has long since expanded to cities in Latin-America, Africa and the Middle East. From his work with diseases such as cholera and H.I.V., Dr. Slutkin is very aware that treating an epidemic so it will not spread further has its genesis in changing human behaviour.

To that end, he is convinced, community values and normatives must first be altered. Simply put, those raised in communities where social and criminal violence is the norm, accept that behaviour as the norm and practise it themselves for want of a more civil pattern of a social contract that benefits those who practise it. "The best predictor of condom use is whether people think their friends use condoms", he offered, by way of comparison.

So the platform most useful to Cure Violence and its guiding philosophy is that of altering consciousness through exposure to different values accepted by the entire community. Instead of becoming a victim of a victimized society, the goal is to convince the community that self-harm is of no use to anyone, that acceptance of communal values to improve the quality of life will result in and of itself in an improved quality of life for everyone concerned, most notably from childhood to adulthood.

"Violence interrupters" from the community are trained to react when in the presence of troubled human relations; they step in to mediate disputes and guide people toward more reasonable behaviour. Treating social deviance as a community-based disease that can be treated by the community itself in turning itself away from deviant and violent behaviour. "Consciously or unconsciously, they want someone to talk them down", observed John Hardy, a one-time violence interrupter in his community.

Cure Violence also works toward inoculating potential victims with an adjunct program of jobs such as cleaning litter out of parks, to steer the vulnerable in an alternate direction averse to violent street corners. While conventional wisdom dictates that young men versed in gang culture would scorn such menial work, the truth appeared otherwise when the anticipated uptake of between 25 to 30 percent turned out to be 60 percent signing on to these work assignments.

In East Oakland, California, Planting Justice operates in a similar vein, hiring former prisoners to tend 30,000 fruit and nut trees. Anthony Forrest, 56, five days out of prison after serving a sentence of 25 years for armed robbery, began work with Planting Justice, earning $25 hourly, with health benefits. "Working in the garden calms me down", he stated.

In this Monday, July 7, 2014, file photo, Chicago police display some of the thousands of illegal firearms they confiscated so far that year in their battle against gun violence in Chicago. (M. Spencer Green/AP)
In this Monday, July 7, 2014, file photo, Chicago police display some of the thousands of illegal firearms they confiscated so far that year in their battle against gun violence in Chicago. (M. Spencer Green/AP)

"It's public health, and the way that public health works is that you have health workers, and health workers are the ones who have the access to people whose behaviors you want to help change. So we have sex workers reaching sex workers, if you're talking about HIV/AIDS. You're talking about moms who are reaching moms for breast feeding or nutrition, refugees reaching refugees, and various situations possibly related to cholera or tuberculosis. Here you have people who used to be involved in violent behavior now helping to access the people who are doing it, or thinking about doing it."
"So this is a basic, essential, public health technology. It's the same thing with Ebola. They tried police responses to Ebola, and it spread. It wasn't until there were health workers who could talk to people on why not to touch the person who is sick, how to bury safely... all these behaviors that we deal with in health — violent behaviors, sexual behavior, hand washing or sanitation — they are very difficult behaviors to change. Violence, by the way, is not one of the harder behaviors to change. Smoking behavior is much harder, and sexual behavior is much harder. The difficulty we're having in the realm of violent behavior, really relates to the public's understanding of it, because it's still being characterized as some kind of a moralistic problem, rather than a scientific, health-based problem. And we used to do this with other issues in health, too."
Dr. Gary Slutkin, infectious disease control specialist, University of Chicago, Illinois 

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