Father’s Day, White Dads, and Conversations about Race

Father’s Day is a special occasion reserved for recognizing and celebrating the invaluable role that dads play in the lives of their children.

Beyond providing financial support, fathers can significantly contribute to their children’s personal and social development through the support and unconditional love they give their children.

More specifically, a crucial aspect of parenting is preparing children to thrive in a complex, fast-changing, and diverse society. Fathers want their children to be successful, good humans, and to make the world a better place in whatever job, career, or profession they choose. But fathers’ responsibility goes beyond encouraging individual success and extends to promoting harmony and understanding among people of different walks of life, including ethnicity, race, religion, country of origin, place of birth, gender, gender identity, etc.

One of the fundamental but often neglected areas where fathers can make a difference in the lives of their children is by guiding them on issues related to race, inequality, and social justice.

This Father’s Day, as some men reflect on their role in their children’s lives, it’s important to consider how they can and should talk to their children about race-related issues that impact their lives.

Although the burden of teaching children to understand the evil impact of racism on their wellbeing has fallen to non-White parents, this hasn’t been the case for white parents. If we are socializing children to live and contribute to a socially fair society. It is equally essential for white fathers and other caregivers to engage in conversations about race and white privilege with their children from an early age and model appropriate behavior.

White fathers like myself have a unique opportunity and responsibility to shape our white children’s attitudes and behaviors towards others. We can teach them that all human beings, regardless of race, ethnicity, religion, gender, are valued and deserve respect. We must teach them that diversity is a precious gift that needs to be nurtured and promoted. We must teach them the importance of getting along with people from all backgrounds and standing up when they see something that is wrong, unfair, or unjust. This discussion goes beyond emphasizing social justice, equality, tolerance, and diversity; it is about actively teaching our children about the history and reality of racism in the United States and elsewhere. It includes having conversations about the myths of meritocracy, the way structural racism undergirds everything, and about how whites might inadvertently perpetuate it if we are not conscious and aware of it.

Living in Washington, DC, a part of the country where the majority of school children are non-white, my children found themselves in the minority. When my son was about 12 years old I encountered a situation where he played a game of cops and robbers (with real looking guns) in the neighborhood with an African-American friend. They took turns being cops and robbers and chasing each other. An innocent game between boys brought into sharp relief what my son could get away with that his friend wouldn’t. I felt a negative visceral reaction about the optics of the situation, fearing that a passing police officer might misinterpret their play, potentially leading to dire consequences.

This situation, and many others, further compelled me to have open conversations about white privilege and racial and ethnic differences with him and his sister and the challenges faced by marginalized communities. We all have the power to dismantle the racism that we see around. But if we do not talk about how and why, we might be indirectly contributing to the problem.

Some of these talks included my experiences growing up in Canada, a country unlike the United States, that attempts to celebrate its vertical mosaic (believing that diversity is the nation’s strength) rather than the melting pot approach that the United States has become.

Multiculturalism in Canada does not mean that Canadians approach to racial and ethnic diversity is perfect. Growing up in Toronto I remember witnessing numerous instances of racial bullying against Pakistani and Asian classmates and continued during my cab driving years. Living in Montreal I recalled how the police (and lots of members of Quebec society) were hostile and racist toward the French speaking Haitian community who lived among their midst. And working in out west in Lethbridge, Alberta I recalled the never relenting racism towards First Nations people who were marginalized both socially and economically.

I shared these experiences with my children, highlighting the importance of acknowledging and confronting racism and reflecting about how we are in some unknown ways contributing to it. It’s not simply seeing this debilitating social problem as one that exists between one or more individuals, but is also found in the realms of institutions like schools, and work places.

We need to have conversations about race and injustice, not just once, or when we see or experience it (e.g., like the oft heard “learning opportunity” approach), but on a continuous basis. In other words, we can’t simply be reactive, but we must be proactive as well. Giving up power and privilege is not easy.

It’s important for fathers to explicitly express their commitment to being anti-racist and their support for social justice, racial, and ethnic equality. However, merely making declarations is not enough; we must lead by example. Anti-racist values should be integrated into our daily lives and reflected in our words, actions, interactions, and school curricula (those campaigning against so-called Critical Race Theory taught in educational settings take note). By modeling these principles, we can effectively impart them to our children.

It is essential for fathers to challenge stereotypes that perpetuate racism and understand and be reflective about how we benefit from systems of oppression. We all have the power and agency to dismantle racism. Fathers have a unique role in this space.

We must also recognize situations where racial and ethnic discrimination may be a factor in how grown-ups, particularly those in positions of authority (e.g., teachers, store clerks, security officers, police officers, etc.), hold racist attitudes and engage in prejudicial actions. By encouraging our children to critically examine societal norms and expectations, we can empower them to stand up against racism when they witness or experience it.

In teaching our children about racism, it is crucial to emphasize the significance of standing up against it not because we tell them to, but because it is the right thing to do.

By fostering their sense of justice and empathy, fathers can empower their children to be active allies in the fight against racism. We should encourage them to speak out against racism, recognize their own privilege, work to dismantle systemic racism, support marginalized communities, and work towards creating a more inclusive society.

This includes:

1. Helping children identify instances of racial profiling and teaching them how to best interact with people in positions of authority using their privilege. This typically involves acting respectfully, remaining calm, complying with instructions, and seeking legal representation if necessary.

2. Outlining how systemic racism and discrimination exist and how they can negatively affect outcomes in employment, education, economic opportunities, and the criminal justice system.

3. Identify white privilege, what does it mean? How does it look like? Who benefits from it? Where does it come from?

4. Encouraging children to understand stereotypes and biases, and empowering them to develop resistance, embrace their cultural identity with pride, and excel in spite of societal expectations.

5. Emphasizing the importance of self-care, self-respect, and mental health.

6. Value, appreciate, and honor the humanity in everyone no matter where they come from or who they are.

7. Help them to understand the atrocities committed during slavery, the horrors of that time, and implications for how we treat each other today. We must never forget what that evil system of oppression did to enslave people and the consequences of not reckoning with it.

As white fathers, we have a responsibility to raise socially conscious and anti-racist children. By engaging in open and honest conversations about race, challenging biases, and teaching empathy and understanding, we can better equip our children with the tools to navigate a diverse world.

This Father’s Day, let’s recognize the importance of addressing race-related issues with our children and commit to fostering a more equitable and inclusive society together.

photo credit
Title: Son exploring the world
Photographer: Ante Hamersmit

Analyzing legislators’ recent attempts to address the FBOP Crisis

Although correctional facilities and practices in the United States may not be as bad as those which exist in lessor developed countries, American prison systems have routinely been criticized for having a substantial amount of correctional officer deviance, corruption, poor living conditions, including overcrowding, substandard food, medical and psychiatric care, among other challenges. Some experts have even suggested that these elements are examples of human rights violations.

More recently, in February 2022, Senators John Ossoff (Dem-Georgia) and Mike Braun (Rep- Indiana), spearheaded a 10-month investigation into corruption, abuse, and misconduct at United States Penitentiary Atlanta (USPA) and within the Federal Bureau of Prisons (FBOP).

In order to put things in context, it’s important to understand that several correctional systems operate in the United States. We find them at the local, state, and federal level. But the FBOP, is the prison system that is responsible for managing 122 correctional facilities and according to most recent statistics (June 1, 2023) incarcerates about 159,116 people. Among the numerous correctional facilities in the FBOP there are both prisons specifically designed for men and those for women.

Ossoff and Braun’s investigation was formed under the auspices of “The Senate Bipartisan Prison Policy Working Group” that was established to “identify and advance solutions.”

The working group included four hearings:

• The July 2022 hearing on corruption, abuse and misconduct at the BOP’s Atlanta prison revealed “a facility where inmates, including presumptively innocent pretrial detainees, were denied proper nutrition, access to clean drinking water, and hygiene products; lacked access to medical care; endured months of lockdowns with limited or no access to the outdoors or basic services; and had rats and roaches in their food and cells.”

• The September 2022 hearing examined uncounted deaths in America’s prison facilities “included release of a Government Accountability Office report criticizing Justice Department lapses that contributed to states not reporting nearly 1,000 in-custody deaths as federal law requires.”

• The November 2022 hearing examined “Medical Mistreatment of Women in ICE Detention.

• The December 2022 hearing reviewed the “Sexual Abuse of Female Inmates in Federal Prisons.” The findings, Ossoff said, demonstrate “that the BOP is failing systemically to prevent, detect, and address sexual abuse of prisoners by its own employees,” including top officials.

On September 28, 2022, in the middle of the process, Ossoff, Braun, along with Dick Durbin (Dem-Illinois) introduced the Federal Prison Oversight Act (FPOA) in the Senate.

Representatives Lucy McBath (Dem-GA) and Kelly Armstrong (Rep-ND) introduced a similar bill in the House of Representatives.

The FPOA would require the Department of Justice (DOJ) to create a prisons ombudsman to respond to complaints about prison conditions and require the Department’s Inspector General (IG) to evaluate risks and abuses at all BOP facilities. Under the FPOA, the IG would conduct risk-based inspections of all federal prison institutions, provide recommendations to address deficiencies and assign each facility a risk score. Higher-risk facilities would then receive more frequent inspections.

Although it kind of boggles the mind, why something like this does not exist already, the measure was not passed and died at the end of the 117th Congress.

On April 25, 2023, Ossoff, Braun, and Durbin re-introduced the Federal Prison Oversight Act in the senate. McBath and Armstrong followed suit in the House. The bill requires DOJ Inspector General to conduct vigorous oversight and creates a new independent Ombudsman to investigate health & safety of staff and inmates.

Just to give you a sense of how popular the bill is, “It is supported by civil rights, prison union, and public safety organizations, including the Council of Prison Locals (CPL), Families Against Mandatory Minimums (FAMM), the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), the Conservative Political Action Committee (CPAC), National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, Americans for Prosperity, Justice Action Network, Due Process Institute, Right on Crime, and Niskanen Center.”

What’s different between the previous version of the bill and the new one? The legislation was revised “to be more inclusive of different types of sexual harm, following revelations brought to light during a Senate investigation last year, according to Ossoff’s office. The new language states that the Inspector General may use incidences of sexual abuse to assess a prison’s risk score, whereas the previous version had mentioned only “sexual violence” or “assault”.

Shortcomings of the Existing Bill

Although a step in the right direction, the Federal Prison Oversight Act has five principle shortcomings:

Limited coverage of facilities: Although it’s important for the federal government to focus on correctional institutions that they are directly responsible for managing (i.e., the FBOP), it would also be helpful if a bill like this would be more comprehensive, and extend to other correctional systems operating in the United States, like those in the states, local governments, tribal and territorial areas.

Lack of clarity on the scope and authority of the inspections regime: The FPOA does not provide specific details on the frequency, manner, or criteria for inspections. It mentions some areas to be assessed, but the lack of exact guidelines may lead to inconsistencies or subjective interpretations in conducting inspections.

Insufficient involvement of stakeholders: Although the bill encourages consultation with formerly incarcerated individuals, family members, and community advocates during the development of the inspections regime, it does not outline a clear process for their participation, nor how their input will be used.

Lack of enforcement mechanisms: The FPOA does not outline specific consequences or enforcement measures if deficiencies are found during inspections. Without clear mechanisms for addressing and rectifying these issues, the inspections may have limited impact on improving prison conditions and ensuring accountability.

Potential resource limitations: The bill does not specify how much money that the committee will request for the proper implementation of the provisions of the bill. Although failing to put a dollar amount that initiatives outlined in the bill gives its framers more flexibility, it may be helpful to get a better idea how much the federal government will be out of pocket. More specifically, conducting regular inspections across the BOP’ facilities would require adequate staffing, training, and logistical support, which might pose challenges without sufficient resources.

In sum, although the proposed FPOA is important, unless these issues are dealt with this new legislation may simply be politics as symbolic action. When this happens politics and politicians appear to simply be going through the motions and unnecessarily contributes to public distrust and a loss of faith in our political institutions. It’s a situation that we can least afford in our current political climate.

Photo: United States Penitentiary Atlanta

Thinking about the ten year anniversary of THE GLOBALIZATION OF SUPERMAX PRISONS

A decade has passed since the publication of my edited book, The Globalization of Supermax Prisons.

This collection of thirteen chapters, four of which I sole-authored, and another I co-authored, was published in 2013 by Rutgers University Press.

The Globalization of Supermax Prisons included a foreword by Loïc Wacquant, a highly regarded and respected Sociologist, along with insightful contributions from eleven other prominent academics. Together these researchers assembled and reviewed existing scholarship at the time on the emergence, growth, complexity, and proliferation of supermax prisons, a relatively new form of incarceration – an institution where inmates are typically locked up for a minimum of 23 hours a day, and afforded minimal rights and privileges, that frequently results in a deteriorating effect on prisoners’ mental and physical well-being.

The content of the book sits at the intersections of scholarship not only on corrections and criminal justice, but crimes of the powerful, and focused on the numerous factors that contribute to the growth and spread of supermax prisons, including political ideologies, economic incentives, and the securitization of penal policies.

With the exception of the introduction and conclusion, each chapter examined the experience of supermax prisons in countries where supermax prisons have proliferated, including not just the United States, but Australia, Brazil, Britain, Canada, Mexico, New Zealand, the Netherlands, and South Africa.

These chapters also highlighted the unique ways in which supermaxes have been implemented and integrated within their respective criminal justice systems, emphasizing that supermax prisons are not just an American export, but a global phenomenon with distinctive local characteristics and implications.

The Globalization of Supermax Prisons, demonstrated how this process is part of a larger trend influenced by neoliberal policies and free market ideology, which have contributed to the growth of the prison-industrial complex and the expansion of supermax institutions worldwide.

The chapters and the book itself also examine numerous connections within the relationships among globalization, capitalism, and the prison industry.

It’s important to note that many states and countries may not have a standalone supermax prisons, but rather a tier, wing, or annex where convicts who would normally be sent to a supermax facility are detained.

Thus, it is crucial to consider these variations in facility designations and terminology when researching these types of institutions globally.

By exploring the ethical implications of supermax prisons, the book challenged readers to critically evaluate the trade-off between public safety and individual-human rights.

The Globalization of Supermax Prisons received the 2013 “Choice Outstanding Academic Title” award and garnered nine mostly highly positive reviews in scholarly journals ranging from the Corrections Compendium to the Law and Politics Book Review. Reviewers were emphasized how the book was an important contribution to the discussion of the field of corrections.

In addition to its positive reception, the book made significant contributions to our understanding of the dissemination of American-style criminal justice initiatives, policies, and practices. It shed light on the persisting existence of supermax prisons and solitary confinement in many so-called civilized countries and underscored the need for empirical examination of whether these institutions and practices have increased over time.

Moreover, in the context of the ongoing rise in the global prison population, the book highlighted the lack of thoughtful mechanisms in place by most governments to deal with the incarceration of the most dangerous individuals in their correctional facilities. The books’ critical examination of the ethical implications of the prison-industrial complex and the pervasive influence of neoliberalism served as a valuable resource for readers grappling with the complex issues surrounding mass incarceration.

As we continue to navigate the challenges presented by supermax prisons, The Globalization of Supermax Prisons should serve as a compass guiding us toward the development of more just and humane prison and criminal justice systems.