Ida DupontVITALS

I am a Professor of Criminal Justice at Pace University here in New York. I was born in Copenhagen, Denmark. I grew up in the suburbs of Westchester County, a place I can never afford to live ever again, not that I would want to. I have spent the last 13 years of my life in New York City abreviated only by a brief stint in Florida (my brother warned me when I moved that by leaving New York City I was "moving to America" and that perhaps this was not such a good idea). I quickly learned my lesson and returned a year later. I am 36, single without kids. My favorite transportation is anything with wheels except for a car- preferably rollerskates or a bicycle.

THE INTERVIEW

You went to undergraduate school at a very liberal educational institution, Vassar, and ended up in the very conservative profession of criminal justice. The route from there to there must have been an interesting journey. Could you tell us about some of your early experiences that led you down that path?
The most formative experience for me was when a professor at Vassar brought some of us to Greenhaven Correctional Facility, a maximum-security prison for men, to take part in its pre-release program which prepares long-termers to return back to life on the outside. So there I was sitting in a circle with a room full of male prisoners who were about to be released back into society after doing fifteen, even twenty-five year bids.

One inmate sitting next to me playfully showed off the tattoo on the inside of his bottom lip that read “fuck you” when the c.o.’s turned their backs. He was like the class clown. But I have to say that the prisoners were all really respectful to us and grateful for our visits. Many had not had any visitors for years so our job was to re-acquaint them with the outside world. We talked about everything from new music and clothing trends, to how to use an ATM, to what to say at a job interview, and about their fears of adjusting to life on the outside.

Visiting prison really confirmed what I already suspected about the inequities of our society. Almost all of the men behind bars were black or Latino. I later learned that 3/4 of all prisoners in NYS come from the 7 poorest neighborhoods in NYC. And while many people think that prisoners get lots of programs, services and opportunities for rehabilitation; that was clearly not the case from having visited prison and spoken to the inmates there. I probably learned more about our society by going to prison than anything I studied in my classes, and I think it was at this point that I made the decision to try to address some of these issues in my work.

As Director of the Women in Prison Project, a New York State prisoner watchdog group, you visited numerous prisons. Given that wellspring of experience, we're curious what your thoughts were on the whole Abu Ghraib prison/torture scandal.
I was very disturbed, but not terribly surprised that something like that could happen, particularly in a prison. In the criminal justice field we call prisons "total institutions" which essentially means that they are completely cut off from the outside world. This isolation and secrecy breeds all sorts of abuses of power and corruption.

This is why watchdog organizations like the one I worked for, a part of the Correctional Association of New York, are crucial. They provide some measure of defense against such abuses. As soon as prisons, like the one in Guantanamo or at Abu Ghraib, refuse entry to the Red Cross or other humanitarian organizations, abuses are much more likely to take place. This is not because all jailers are abusive but because prisons as institutions regulate and control prisoners in order to reinforce their lack of power and status while elevating the authority and power of correctional officers.

It can be argued this setup is necessary to ensure the order and security of prisons since correctional officers are vastly outnumbered by prisoners and do not carry guns. Commenting on this phenomenon, a friend of mine who did 12 years in Sing Sing once told me that correctional officers rule by consent of the inmates who could riot at any time.

Some correctional officers overcompensate by abusing their power and beating prisoners into submission or arbitrarily exerting control to break the spirit of prisoners so that they do not rebel. Correctional officers have to come to terms with their capacity to yield immense power and control over prisoners in a setting where secrecy rules. The good c.o.’s do this by strictly following regulations and ethics codes. However, there are those who take advantage of their positions who do unspeakable things. And it is the job of human rights organizations to go into prisons and monitor conditions so that prisoners’ basic human rights are protected.

What do you believe is the most important issue facing female prisoners in New York State and what have you done to address it?
There are many issues like the sexual abuse of female prisoners by correctional officers. But I think the main issue that needs to be addressed is the way in which the War on Drugs has been waged against poor women of color. The female incarceration rate is increasing at a faster pace than that of men. Even those women who are not doing time for selling or possessing drugs committed a drug-related offense like low-level property offenses or prostitution to secure money for drugs. For those women who are caught with narcotics, they can do serious time.

Under the state’s very punitive Rockefeller Drug Laws, if you are convicted of possessing 4 ounces of cocaine or heroin, or selling 2 ounces of a narcotic drug, you automatically receive a mandatory sentence of 15 to life. When these laws were passed in 1973, they were meant to serve as a powerful deterrent against drug use. It was also thought at the time that these drug laws would result in the conviction of the kingpins or owners and managers of drug rings.But unfortunately, this usually doesn’t happen. The people at the top do not normally carry or stash the drugs so lower-level people are the ones usually caught with the drugs on them. Lower-level people also generally don’t have names of higher-ups to give up in exchange for lenient treatment, so they end up doing the time, whereas the guys higher up can give up lots of names of lower-level people.

The most troubling aspect of these drug laws is they have accomplished nothing but an exponential increase in the incarceration rate in New York State. So when I was the Director of the Women in Prison Project at the Correctional Association we fought to end the punitive Rockefeller Drug Laws and for increased funding for drug treatment programs. The Drop the Rock campaign is a grassroots effort of a wide range of organizations that involves lobbying efforts, mass rallies, hip hop summits, and other public education efforts to try to get the word out about the necessity to change these laws.

So how do we fix the system? Any initiatives you would propose as alternatives to the War on Drugs?
We have to decide if we want to treat drug addiction as a medical/public health problem or as a crime. Some would also regard it as a free choice, albeit with certain harms associated with its use. The public health/medical model requires more treatment slots and treatment programs, the harm reduction model requires honest public education about the effects of drugs and ways to reduce harms associated with its use (needles exchange programs fall into this category). The crime model is what we have now.

Although I have to say that the Drug Courts are an innovative approach because they incorporate the crime control/medical models by providing drug addicted offenders the possibility of a second chance if they participate in drug treatment, I personally believe that a punitive response to the drug problem doesn’t make sense if you are dealing with drug-addicted offenders. However, we can’t be naïve about the violence associated with some illegal drug trades and the terrible impact this can have on communities. The criminal justice system is best equipped to deal with turf battles and other drug-trade related violence.

But we have to fund drug treatment programs and needle exchange programs and we have to repeal the Rockefeller Drug Laws. Finally, we need to address the economic reasons that so many young people from poor neighborhoods are dealing drugs to begin with.

The drug trade is a lucrative business that creates jobs for thousands of young men and women in economically depressed neighborhoods. In some areas, the unemployment rate for young black men is 50%. It’s no wonder that some turn to the drug trade. We can’t expect young, smart, entrepreneurial teens from economically devastated neighborhoods to want to flip burgers at McDonald’s for minimum wage when their friends are making fast money selling drugs and livin’ large.

They need to be reminded that they are bright and talented and that they can channel their entrepreneurial skills into something productive, like maybe starting a business. In the meantime, they need to be encouraged to finish school and go to college. It is shameful that more black men are incarcerated in this nation than going to college.

You've been active as an advocate for women's right to choose, obviously a controversial issue that we expect will come even more to the fore during a second Bush term. Back in 1991 you worked in an abortion clinic that provided abortions up through the end of the second trimester. What was that like?
Working at the abortion clinic was quite an experience! I was a counselor at the clinic. Everyone had to speak to a counselor to explain the procedure to them and to advise them about birth control and answer any of their questions if they had any. I heard so many sad stories about why women had decided to have abortions.

I had to cross a picket line to get to work and there was an anti-choice protester that used to harass all of us when we entered the clinic. Her name was Brenda. I later heard that she used to be a Broadway singer, which would explain her theatrics. She would bring a dust-buster to imitate the sound of an abortion and she would make up rhymes about all of us. It was really chaotic sometimes. I felt sorry for the women who had to cross that gauntlet before having their abortions.

One woman was so frustrated by the commotion that she unwittingly punched one of the escorts that was there to help her inside the clinic. She just clocked this poor woman because she thought she was an anti-choice protester. It was pretty insane.

The second trimester abortions were hard for me to deal with because they are admittedly a bit gory. However, these procedures make up a very small percentage of the abortion cases and the women who have these procedures generally do so because of a fetal abnormality or health problem. I remember witnessing one of these procedures and being disturbed at the sight of parts of a fetus being removed.

But as I learned, abortion is one of those gray area issues that is best understand from the vantage point of the woman herself. I learned this from my experience with one woman who called the clinic from another state that did not allow for second trimester abortions. She was desperate to have an abortion but did not have the money for the procedure. She said she had been raped and could not deal with the thought of bringing a rapist’s child into the world. She was very afraid that she might have contracted HIV from the rapist who was a known drug injector.

She came from a very strict upbringing and could not turn to her parents for help. I decided to help her and scheduled her appointment. I helped raise the money for her procedure and for her stay while in the City. When I met her, she cried with relief. I think of her when I hear all of these male legislators talk with judgment

How else have you supported the pro-choice movement?
I helped organize and took part in the Reproductive Freedom Ride — we biked from New York City to Seattle to draw attention to reproductive issues. We did street theatre and rallies all along the way and lived with pro-choice activists from across the country.

It was a great experience. I never ate so much ambrosia in my life (it’s a mid-western side dish with marshmallows and fruit and nuts). I learned a lot about peoples’ attitudes about abortion. To my surprise a lot of the western states, like Montana for example, were pro-choice not because of their feminist leanings but because of their disdain for government interference into their personal lives.

We also met a fair amount of resistance in some pockets. One night when we didn’t have a place to stay, we called the local Chamber of Commerce and they sent us to stay with a family who turned out to be Christian missionaries. That was a weird experience, because about half of the Riders were lesbians and one or two were Jewish, so you can imagine the dinner conversation that ensued. But the food was good, lots of ambrosia.

You're currently working on a book that builds on research you undertook as part of your PhD dissertation on domestic violence. Tell us about that.
It’s a book about battered women who are also low-income and drug addicted. This subgroup of women is particularly at risk of severe and lethal violence, which is why I think they warrant special attention. So far, I have conducted about 50 life history interviews with women that I met at needle exchange programs, homeless shelters, drug treatment programs, and congregate housing for people with HIV/AIDS.

From talking to them about their lives I learned that the vast majority of these women were severely abused as children, were raised by alcoholic or drug addicted caretakers, and witnessed their mothers being abused. These childhood experiences placed them at a “continuum of risk” of being abused as adults, becoming drug addicts, and contracting HIV. By tracing the trajectory of their lives this continuum of risk can be explained

In talking to all of these battered women were there any patterns of help-seeking or coping strategies that really jumped out at you?
I learned that women developed coping strategies which initially may have improved their situations but over time actually made them more vulnerable to abuse. For example, many women ran away from home to escape abusive homes only to end up in abusive relationships. Some lived with boyfriends (usually much older men) who at first took care of them but more often than not ended up becoming controlling and violent. Because they had left home, they did not have anywhere else to go, so they felt trapped and many stayed with abusive men who often got them pregnant. Many dropped out of school once pregnant which of course economically marginalized them. Drug use was often seen as a way to escape their dismal reality. As their addictions took off, their options became more and more limited.

Most did not feel comfortable calling the police when they were beaten because they had drugs on them. SO they felt that they had no choice but to deal with the violence on their own. This of course led to some very dangerous situations: women fought back, sometimes to the point of nearly killing their abusers. Others used “street justice”, or involved family members or friends to “handle“ the situation. Several of the women were arrested and some jailed.

Probably the most disturbing finding of this study is that out of fifty women, only three of their abusers were ever jailed for abusing them. They felt that the police were much more concerned about doing drug busts than arresting their abusers.

You've also seen the flip side of the domestic violence equation, working as a counselor to men who had abused women in Tampa FL and the South Bronx. As a — hope you don't mind our saying — but as an attractive blond woman with a bit of a baby face in a room full of men who don't treat women particularly well, did you have trouble being taken seriously?
Working with the men was the most incredibly empowering experience for me. I really learned a lot from that experience. I was really committed to this work and I had thought that I would make it my life’s work. I only lasted three years because I burned out at the end. But for the first couple of years, I really enjoyed facilitating those classes because I really believe in the rehabilitative ideal: anyone can change (if they want to).

It felt good to flex my compassion muscles even though it was an enormous challenge for me to remain calm during confrontations with some of the men. They would test me, as they would test all instructors. One man once said to me, “how can I respect an animal who bleeds seven days out of every month?” It was such a crazy comment I just took a deep breath and moved on because I knew he just wanted to see me get mad.

It was genuinely hard for many of the men to imagine human interactions that did not involve hierarchy and control. So it was really important not to relate to them in that way. I knew that a majority of these men had been abused as children, which made it easier to deal with them when they were occasionally disrespectful.

But for the most part, they were very respectful toward me. Many were ashamed for being in the class and feared my judgment. I actually had compassion for them most of the time. It was only toward the end of my three years that I started to lose my passion for this work. I started to get impatient and angry at the men and got tired of hearing their justifications. I knew it was time for me to stop.

Did this experience inform in any way your overall understanding of domestic abuse?
Absolutely, I learned that domestic violence is a really complicated problem. The programs where I worked adopted a very strict feminist analysis of the problem. However I now believe that there are some gray area situations where abuse cuts both ways. In other words, there are plenty of relationships where both parties occasionally use violence against the other during an argument. Is this the same as when one person (usually the male) systematically controls and abuses his female partner?

There are clearly degrees of abuse, different levels of severity and different kinds of abusive relationships. Some women do not regard themselves as victims of abuse even if their partners have hit them. Some women hit their partners, sometimes in self-defense, other times in retaliation, or occasionally as initiators of violence. There is violence in lesbian and gay relationships as well. Unfortunately, there is plenty of violence in relationships and it is not limited to the traditional male abuser/female victim scenario. These differences need to be taken into account when we deliver services to victims/survivors as well as perpetrators of domestic violence.

As we noted earlier, you are a liberal in a field of conservatives. This must have led to some interesting moments...
Yeah, I remember attending classes in graduate school where we would all sit around a table discussing the readings the way graduate students do, and I looked to the student to my left and saw that he was packing (a gun). It was totally strange to be engaged in some heated debate knowing that half of the class (probably the more conservative portion) was armed. I remember thinking, “this may not end well.”

But actually I have to say that my impression of the police really improved after my interactions with them in grad school because the cops were the most team-oriented students I had ever met. Every time we had an exam they would plan study sessions and share their notes. They always had a strategy. Their attitude was “we’re a team and we have to get through this exam together” there was none of that Ivy League competitiveness. As long as we all passed, they were happy. It was cool.

You teach a class on Restorative Justice in which you bring up the notion of "Integrative Shaming" as an alternative to incarceration. For those of us in the back row, could you explain that concept to us? For that matter, what is Restorative Justice?
Restorative justice is the opposite of retributive justice. Instead of punishment for vengeance sake, the aim is to repair the harms of crime as much as possible. So instead of just incarcerating people they would figure out the best way to heal the victim and the community where the crime took place.

I’ll give you a real-life example. There was a case in Colorado where a teenage kid recklessly shot off a paintball gun and partially blinded a girl. Instead of just having the boy incarcerated, the girl preferred to meet with him in a mediation session (it’s called a family conferencing session). She wanted to have a chance to tell him how much his careless action had impacted her life and she wanted to hear his explanation for what he did. At the session, the victim had her mother and select friends with her to provide emotional support, the boy was also allowed to bring people to support him through the process. The victim got to speak her mind and to ask him questions. After this, the boy got a chance to really take responsibility for what he had done.

The victim then requested several things of the boy: she wanted him to get a job and help pay for her medical bills and transportation to the doctor, to write a letter to the editor in the local newspaper to warn others about being reckless with guns, and finally to talk to student assemblies about the consequences of shooting off guns. This experience gave the victim a lot more control and actually resulted in the perpetrator taking a lot more responsibility for his actions than if he had just been sentenced to jail (although he did also have to spend a few weekends in jail).

The essential difference between the restorative approach and the retributive approach is that restoration is about re-integrative shaming and retribution is about stigmatic shaming. When we punish for vengeance sake we never let the person live down their crime. We never reintegrate them into society whereas the goal with restorative justice is to hold the person accountable but then to bring them back into the fold.

It's a bit of a truism that most teachers want to "make a difference." Have you ever had that *wow* kind of moment where you realized you had?
I have had lots of wonderful moments when I felt really proud of students who did well and came back to thank me later for having impacted them in some way or another. But the story I like best is when I taught a class called The Sociology of Violence, where I incorporated a lot of different types of violence including corporate violence, war, revolutionary violence, the death penalty, and other state-sanctioned forms of violence like political repression and police brutality. It was a pretty intense class.

One student was very conservative, I think he was a Marine, and he let me know on several occasions that he disagreed with certain readings. But he was an excellent student, very bright and engaged in the material. At the end of the semester he came up to me and said that he really enjoyed the class and that it had forced him to question some of his beliefs. In fact he was confused about what to believe, but now he was asking questions of the government, our society and his own values. I felt great because I know that some of the best classes I ever took totally challenged my perception of reality. I felt I had done my job.

You've worked with a lot of people living in the margins of society. This must be pretty emotionally challenging and draining. How do you deal?
I used to be much more impacted by it than I am now. When I first started interviewing battered women, I would come home and cry for like an hour. It was so overwhelming to listen to peoples’ life histories and to know how much suffering they had endured. It was hard. But you learn to separate yourself a little from the sad stories and from other peoples’ tragedies. You realize that you can only do so much and that you cannot save people. This lesson has helped me in my private life.

But I do think that helpers like crisis counselors, the police, social workers, and everyone who works with marginalized populations need special attention and care. It is my dream to start a center to “heal the healers”. This would be a place where helping professionals could go to get free services like massage, acupuncture, dance therapy, yoga classes, and whatever other healing arts might help restore them. If we don’t take care of our healers than they can become burned out and even cynical or hardened.

Which was harder for you, finishing the NYC Marathon or your PhD?
PhD, without hesitation. It is an obstacle course. I was running on fumes the last six months of the dissertation. It was so difficult, but I am happy I finished.

If you could live a parallel life to the one you are living, what would it be?
I’d be a dance therapist. It would be an awesome way to combine my interests. I’d love to do that in prisons and other institutional settings. Maybe some day…

Give an example of something you witnessed or experienced that had you think "only in New York" or "damn, I'm glad I live in this city."
Every time I leave New York City to go to a red state I think, damn I am glad I live in New York and not _______(fill in the blank).

Who is/are your heroes?
Amy Goodman, the host of Democracy Now! She speaks truth to power every day of the week. (listen to her on weekdays from 9-10 am on WBAI)

You're in a time machine that can take you back in time. What day in NYC history would you go back to?
Any day during the construction of the Brooklyn Bridge.

Billy's Topless is now a bagel shop, no more smoking in bars or restaurants, Times Square has been Disneyfied, what's next?
A theme restaurant opens with a law enforcement theme

If you could change just one thing about New York City, what would it be?
The Rockefeller Drug Laws

You've got $5.00 in your pocket, an unlimited metro card and a day to kill. What do you do?
Put on my rollerskates (old school, no blades) and go to Central Park to the skating circle to dance all day with amazing people from all walks of life. It's been my home away from home for years.

What source(s) do you turn to for news?
Anywhere but on commercial tv or radio. I gave up on tv years ago, when a major blizzard hit the city, causing a leak in my ceiling to destroy my tv. I never replaced it.

What advice would you give Bush as he embarks on his second term?
"You made this mess, now you clean it"

Bloomberg, another 4 years?
Nobody currently in office should get another four years as far as I'm concerned. I'm for a complete overhaul.

It's the year 2024, what do you think will be the hot topic of discussion at the water cooler?
If I am having a conversation around a water cooler in 2024 that must mean we still have drinkable water. That's good news!

Interview by Raphie Frank