MPA Blog/Book Reviews

Blog Post:  Book Review

Bruce Western (2018): Homeward: Life in the Year After Prison. New York: Russell Sage Foundation.
Reviewed by James Windell, MA, for the Michigan Psychological Association

Bruce Western is the Daniel and Florence Guggenheim Professor of Criminal Justice Policy and professor of sociology at Harvard University and, in addition, is the director of the Justice Lab at Columbia University. Homeward: Life in the Year After Prison presents the stories of men and women Western met while doing interviews for the Boston Reentry Study. The study consisted of a series of interviews with 122 people who left prison to return to neighborhoods around the Boston area. Western and his team wanted to record the stories of people and, in the process, learning what happened to them and what experiences they would have in that all-important year after they were released from incarceration.

While there have been other books on mass incarceration in this country, none are as thorough and insightful as this book. Western writes in a simple, straightforward manner that is at once illuminating of the lives of ex-prisoners and at the same time deeply compassionate, understanding and eloquent in its explanation of the almost impossible task of felons making a post-prison adjustment while trying to overcome the multitude of problems that exist in the life of most people who go to prison.

Western is most interested in public policy and how changes can be brought about to change the fortunes and life trajectories of men and women who leave prison. Not just a reporter of the sad stories of ex-felons, Western raises some significant ethical and philosophical questions. For instance, these questions get asked during the course of this book: What is the goal of punishment? When does punishment end? Why are a disproportionate number of prisoners either African American or Hispanic? Why doesn’t our prison system promote social justice? Why does our society fail to provide the kinds of transitional support prisoners need in order to stay out of prison in the future?

Throughout this book, Western answers some of these questions, while in the last chapter not only raising more questions but offering recommendations for what society can do to reduce the high recidivism rates of ex-prisoners. However, what is so compelling about this book are the stories of individuals Western and his team got to know during this study. Their stories are sad, yes, but they tell a consistent story of why reentry programs and attempts to help prisoners reintegrate into society so often fail. It becomes clear very quickly in Homeward that most people leaving prison will be stuck in a revolving door that didn’t just start when they were sentenced to prison. For most, their life was a litany of racial inequality, deep poverty, layers of trauma, and human frailty – all of which started in childhood.

The first weeks after release from prison was, for most everyone in this study, a time of bewilderment and awkwardness. Feelings of stress, nervousness and loneliness were overwhelming for so many of these people. Trying to adjust to their freedom, while experiencing material hardship, and trying to make it without income or stable housing, produced enormous stress. This stress was compounded, in the lives of a majority of these individuals returning to society outside of prison walls, by drug addiction and mental illness. At times this was relieved by family support. This stress was so palpable that, indeed, for many, it was paralyzing and sapped their energy.

Housing and financial assistance was common from family members for women and young men and for those not dealing with the challenges of drug addiction and mental illness. Those ex-prisoners who were most isolated from family in this period of transition usually had histories of drug addiction and mental illness, and more often than not, were older individuals – those in their late 40s or 50s. It was the role of women that seemed most remarkable in providing housing and financial assistance to released prisoners. Upwards of 80 percent of those individuals who were staying with family were staying with a female relative – half of whom were mothers, and sometimes sisters.

It is the portrait of human frailty that is a hallmark of Western’s book and his account of the year-long struggle for these people newly released from incarceration. As Western writes, “More than just poor and out of work, these men and women embody vulnerability, struggling with mental illness, drug addiction, and physical disability…It is human frailty that reveals our prisons not just as crime control institutions but as social policy instruments of last resort.” What he in part is saying is that the responsibility for caring for the most marginal members of our society has somehow fallen on jails and prisons – institutions designed, not for medical and psychiatric care – but for confinement and separation from the community.

In Homeward, Bruce Western also writes about violence. And he provides a perspective that is rarely taken by policy makers and politicians, If you listen to some segments of the criminal justice community and some politicians and justice officials, one might assume that prisoners can be conveniently categorized as either violent or non-violent. That’s not the way Western sees it after conducting this study. Violence, he writes, is a lifetime reality for people who go to prison. And this violence “grows out of the chaotic context of poverty and its accompanying disadvantages.” Furthermore, he indicates that given the “contextual character” of violence, the roles of victim, witness and perpetrator are not neatly divided among individuals. Instead, those people with a long history of offending have been both victims and witnesses to violence for even longer than they have been violent offenders.

In the last chapter of this book, in which Western talks about social justice and “reimagining” the criminal justice system, he writes that the mission of the social integration of prisoners after release is not realized in our country. In effect, the system – and the broader society – fails. He concludes that criminal justice is a poor instrument for social justice. Our society must come up with alternative solutions to blaming and punishment. As exemplified by the individuals in this study, we must do something different for people who are frail, homeless, poor, and antisocial. He suggests that a starting point is understanding. And what is required in this attempt at understanding is to accept that American society has made a huge mistake in allowing mass incarceration and collective injury to the poor and to people of color. This book is a step in the right direction as it shares the disheartening stories of prisoners who struggle mightily to reenter society.

Blog Post:  Book Review

Richard Rothstein: The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America. (2017). New York: Liverwright Publishing Co.
Reviewed by James Windell, MA, for the Michigan Psychological Association

This is a shocking book. I don’t write that easily. Nor am I that naïve about prejudice, segregation, racial profiling and bigotry in this country. Furthermore, I’m old enough to have been around in the 1950s and 1960s when real estate agents refused to show African Americans houses in white neighborhoods in suburban Detroit. And I personally experienced the threat of being evicted from an apartment in Oakland County because I had African American friends.

What is so shocking and, frankly appalling, is that Richard Rothstein’s book is a candid detailing of the long and despicable history of our government’s complicity and, indeed, its support of segregation in housing and in jobs. And Rothstein is not just writing about government officials in Mississippi, Alabama or other southern states. He offers detailed research that shows that segregation was federal, as well as state, government departments’ and elected leaders’ policies and beliefs throughout the nation. Nor is he writing just about the years during Reconstruction following the Civil War; the period of history he writes about is from the early years of the 20th century and in, some instances, into the current century.

What “The Color of Law” makes so crystal clear is this: from the end of the Civil War until very near the end of the 20th century the racially explicit policies of federal, state and local governments dictated where whites and African Americans should live. Consistent government policies enforced residential racial segregation. Racial segregation in housing was, to put it in its simplest and most straightforward way, a nationwide project of the federal government – designed and implemented not just by white supremacists or dyed-in-the-wool southern bigots, but by some of our more liberal leaders.

The core argument of Rothstein’s book is that African Americans were unconstitutionally denied the means and the rights to integration in middle-class neighborhoods, and because this denial was state-sponsored the nation is obligated to remedy it (although Rothstein doesn’t believe that will ever happen).

Who, specifically, were the sponsors of residential segregation? As chapter after chapter in this book elucidates, it was nearly every agency of business and housing starting at the local level with real estate agents, planning commissions, zoning boards, city commissions, and banks, and going up the government chain to the federal government departments and agencies, including the Federal Home Loan Bank Board and the Federal Housing Administration (FHA).

On the local level, real estate agents refused to show African Americans homes in white neighborhoods. But on the federal level, the FHA would not insure loans to African Americans (or to whites, for that matter) if they planned to live in integrated neighborhoods. Because of government opposition to integration, in city after city across the U.S., housing developers who depended on the federal government for loans or loan insurance had to agree not to build or sell houses to African-American buyers in integrated subdivisions or communities. It was explicitly stated in government documents and policies that people of color did not “fit in” and their presence in any neighborhood would drive down property values –despite the fact the government research found just the opposite.

For any reader who might be hazy as to why African Americans ended up living in slums, ghettos and disadvantaged neighborhoods, Rothstein spells out exactly how this has happened. Not only were African Americans denied any government help in buying into middle-class neighborhoods, but they were driven out by neighborhood “improvement associations” if they were able to buy a house in any community in which whites lived. As you may recall from Lorraine Hansberry’s play “A Raisin in the Sun,” when the Younger family wanted to leave a crowded apartment to buy a nice middle-class house, the neighborhood association came calling with an offer to buy back the house they purchased with not-so-veiled threats about what would happen if they moved into the white neighborhood. Not only did that happen in real life (outside of the theater), but if African Americans did move into a previously all-white community they would be met with protests, cross-burnings on their lawn, broken windows, fire-bombings, and, very often, eviction. The police would stand by offering protection for the protesters and, not infrequently, arresting the African-American homeowners if they tried to protect themselves or their houses.

Beyond what would happen if African Americans tried to buy into middle-class housing, African Americans were overcharged for homes (and apartments), denied access to middle-class residences, forced to live in prescribed areas, and given high-interest mortgages. That usually meant that in order to afford to live, they had to crowd several people or families into a house or apartment. The ultimate result was that they had no ability to save money or accumulate savings for maintenance and repair of their residence.

To make matters worse, as Rothstein explains in later chapters, is that not only were African Americans restricted as to where they could live but they were prohibited from adequate schooling, entrance into colleges, being hired in better jobs, or, if hired, making anywhere near the same money as whites.   

In summary, many of us have looked to the Federal government to remedy segregation and help ensure the civil rights of all citizens. But this expectation that our local, state or national government would do the right thing has been illusory. For instance, after the 1954 Supreme Court decision in Brown vs. Board of Education that was to ostensibly put an end to segregated schools, the Federal Housing and Home Finance Agency stated in no uncertain terms that this court decision did not apply to housing. And while liberals and progressives can sometimes believe that Supreme Court rulings and civil rights act passed by Congress to eliminate discrimination and segregation have worked and we as a nation have made progressive toward racial harmony and integration, we still live in a society in which housing patterns have resulted in perhaps more segregation in our cities – and schools –than ever.

And we wonder why black athletes might take a knee during the playing of our national anthem!    

Blog Post:  Book Review

LaBuda, J., Axelrod, B. N., & Windell, J. (2018). Cognitive Behavioral Protocols for Medical Settings: A clinician’s guide. Routlege, New York, NY.
Reviewed by Todd Knowlton Favorite. PhD, ABPP, for the Michigan Psychological Association

The application and scope of mental health practice has changed significantly over the past few decades with an compendium of methods and techniques across a range of disorders. Nowhere is this more evident than in medical institutions where the utility of evidenced based methods have become an integral feature in treatment planning and consultation. Mental health providers play an increasingly essential role on health care teams in hospital settings, and integrated outpatient clinics. The authors have crafted an important and practical guide for mental health providers through a thoughtful process of identifying common conditions of psychological disorders encountered by clinicians in these settings.      

This book begins with a useful primer on the development and utility of psychological interventions in medical environments.  The authors then provide a comprehensive, yet concise, description of the most effective treatment protocols for the range of common presentations (i.e., pain, sleep, depression, anger dysregulation, anxiety related problems).  This book demonstrates their interest in developing a clinician friendly guide that is easy to access and practical in its application.  I found their articulation of methods for addressing “illness anxiety” and anxiety about medical setting particularly useful for any clinician working within a healthcare system.

The result of their efforts, is a valuable clinical resource that offers clinicians key elements for their diagnosis, conceptualization and treatment planning. They have added relevant research, methodological rationale, and specific protocols outlines with appended treatment materials. Cognitive Behavioral Protocols for Medical Settings – A Clinician’s Guide is a “must have” for any mental health clinician working in a medical setting.

Blog Post: Book Review

Marsh, A. (2017). The Fear Factor: How One Emotion Connects Altruists, Psychopaths, & Everyone In-Between. New York: Basic Books.
Reviewed by Elizabeth Imbesi, PhD, ABPP for the Michigan Psychological Association
19-year-old Abigail Marsh’s life was saved by a complete stranger after she lost control of her vehicle on a busy highway in Washington. The stranger did so at great peril to himself, never asked for any compensation, and never revealed his identity before leaving the scene. This profound experience was the impetus that inspired Ms. Marsh – now Dr. Marsh – on an academic journey researching the nature of altruism.

Marsh’s interesting backstory provides a narrative spine to her scientific work, making her book very readable. She first offers fresh insight into some of the more famous studies in the psychological canon, including lesser-known perspectives on Milgram that highlight the empathy shown by subjects rather than the obedience. From this base, she provides the results of her own enlightening work with regard to psychopathy, altruism, and the amygdala’s response to fear.

Marsh provides background on the psychopathic children and teenagers whom she studied, noting the difference between reactive, violent emotionality (often the product of abuse or neglect) and true psychopathy (mostly genetically influenced). She gives detail – sometimes chillingly – on the coldly violent behaviors of the psychopathic children and teenagers in her study, and their seemingly ordinary presentation under most circumstances.

In the study, while inside an MRI, the children and teens were asked to view human faces – the standard series of prints showing different expressions – and identify them as male or female. This gender task was designed to keep the subjects blind; the MRI was examining the amygdala response to the images.

I will quote Marsh directly here, because this is fascinating: “(o)n average, our psychopathic children showed no activation – zero – in the right amygdala when they viewed the face of someone experiencing intense fear as compared to a neutral face” (p. 88). On follow-up measures, one psychopathic teenager, when responding on a Likert scale to “(w)hat scares others usually doesn’t scare me,” checked 5 and wrote “nothing scare’s [sic] me