Enmeshed in the prison system

  • January 7, 2011
Enmeshed in the prison system

Alexandra Cox's research focuses on youth detention and prison reform.

For Alexandra Cox [2007], juggling her academic studies with on the ground work for prison reform goes hand in hand. So in the last year she has not only been writing up her PhD on criminology and beginning a prestigious fellowship programme, but also working inside prisons for real change.

Her work on youth justice has involved many visits to juvenile detention centres and prisons. She noticed that many of their libraries were underfunded while a large number of their inmates were struggling with literacy problems which acted as a barrier to them moving on after they emerged from jail.

So last year she decided to do something about it. She started up a programme to get people to donate books to youth prison libraries in upstate New York, and ultimately established a project for this effort as part of an NGO called Literacy for Incarcerated Teens. So far, she has raised over $6,000 and purchased over 500 books. “It has had an immediate impact,” she says. “It is an impact you can really see.”

Alexandra has combined activism and academia throughout her career.

She was born in Washington DC, but says it was only at Yale where she did her undergraduate degree that she became interested in criminal justice reform. Until then, literature was her main academic interest. However, she says many members of her family had worked in government on social policy issues. Her great aunt was a welfare commissioner during Roosevelt’s presidency and her grandfather was a lawyer for the Roosevelt administration. “My family were always talking about social policy,” she adds.

At Yale she began a degree in Art History and started volunteering for a juvenile justice programme for young people who had been in trouble with the law. She also wrote about prison issues for a college magazine. However, the turning point for her came when she did a summer internship at Sotheby’s in London. “I was pretty unhappy and realised I could always read about art and I didn’t necessarily need to study it. I was interested in broader social policy and Sotheby’s was very elitist. Art there was more about class and preserving wealth and privilege,” she says.

She returned to Yale in 1998 and switched to an American Studies course, which included history and sociology.

While at Yale, she founded a prison reform group to lobby on issues such as the federal government’s decision to deny students with drug convictions financial support to get into university. The group got the student government at Yale to pass a resolution on the issue and negotiated a deal with the president of the college to provide students with financial support from the college if they were denied federal support. “Very few students would have been affected by that at Yale, but it was symbolic,” she says.

Her interest in social policy and criminology deepened as she got further into her degree – her undergraduate thesis was on the representation of women who had been prosecuted for using drugs while they were pregnant. At Yale, she also took on a job with a drug litigation project run by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). She says the job, which she stayed in for three years, played a “pivotal” role in her later academic career. She did research for a Supreme Court case about students who were drug tested in order to participate in out of school activities in which the ACLU argued that the policy violated the student’s Fourth Amendment rights to privacy . The school’s policy was ultimately upheld by the Supreme Court, but another case she worked on which challenged a policy whereby pregnant women were drug tested without their knowledge and then referred for prosecution if they tested positive was ultimately successful before the Supreme Court.

“It was an amazing job because it was a national project and I got to work on some fascinating issues and to understand the national landscape,” she says.

It led to her first job after Yale which was with the Drug Policy Alliance in San Francisco. There she worked on many cases, including whether Californian doctors should be able to recommend the use of marijuana for medical purposes.

While working at the Alliance she started volunteering at a needle exchange programme the organisation has been representing. “I wanted some on the ground experience,” she says. She later worked for the New York-based Neighbourhood Defender Service in Harlem which provided legal representation to people charged with crimes who could not afford an attorney. She helped direct people to services which could help them and wrote psychosocial histories of them for use in court. “It was an incredible job as I saw how the criminal justice system worked in all its forms,” she says.

Her work included prison visits and client advocacy. “I represented young people and initially I thought most of the cases would revolve around drugs, but in fact a lot of people were arrested for minor offences like trespass. They then became enmeshed in the system. Young people’s initial contact with the system overwhelmingly signals their later enmeshment,” she says.

After getting a few years of on the ground experience, Alexandra headed back to academia. She says she had always wanted to continue her studies.

She chose Cambridge because it had a strong prison research programme with an emphasis on qualitative research. Also her mother is English. “I wanted to get a broader perspective,” she says, “and take a step back from US policy work.”

She knew about the Gates scholarship programme from Yale peers who had gone on to study at Cambridge. She says she met some of her best friends through Gates, even though she was older than many of the scholars. However, she said there was a bigger culture shock between England and the US than she had expected. “A lot of US policy people think the UK is more progressive than the US on penal reform, but the more I spend time in the UK the less I believed that,” she says.

Her PhD followed 40 young people going through the criminal justice process in New York. One of her interests is in how socio-economic issues such as poverty are aggravated by the barriers thrown up by having a criminal conviction. “Young people who emerge from the criminal justice process find it hard to get a job and lack the resources and social capital to get themselves out of their situation,” she says. “It’s not just about getting a job, but also about things like mentorship.”

She is writing up her PhD and various articles linked to it. “I am interested in writing both for the academic press and for the mainstream,” she says.

While completing her PhD, she was awarded a prestigious Open Society Foundation Soros Justice Fellowship. Her research for the fellowship builds on her PhD and focuses in part on that the role of union politics in prison reform. She is working with a local organisation in Brooklyn to break through the obstacles to systematic reform.


Picture credit: Sritangphoto and www.freedigitalphotos.net

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