Thursday, July 28, 2011

Coffin Homes: Living in 15 Square Feet

This week CNN covered a story on something of which I was unaware: Coffin Homes.  “Hidden amid the multi-million dollar high-rise apartments and chic shopping malls of Hong Kong's urban centers are scores of tiny, unseen tenements -- some no bigger than coffins -- that many people call home… Nicknamed coffin homes for their physical similarities, the 15-square-foot enclosure is just one incarnation of the city's distinctive low-income housing alternatives. Others include the city's cage homes, which resemble livestock coops (Hong Kong’s Poorest Living in Coffin Homes, CNN).”  I challenge you to read this article and watch this video, which includes a walkthrough of a coffin home.  

As a developed country and classified as an advanced economy, Hong Kong is home to some of the wealthiest people in the world.  Despite these advances, a proportion of Hong Kong’s population are living in substandard housing; many who are productive citizens living off a substandard wage system.  

Owned by private landlords, the government in Hong Kong takes a “hands off” approach, as tax payer’s money should not be used for commercial endeavors.  While I see the government’s justification, part of me wonders whether renting conditions should be regulated.  On top of the outrageous cost for some of these units (range of $150-$1,400 a month per unit), the conditions are unsafe, as was shown with a recent Hong Kong fire that killed several coffin home dwellers.  Fire safety code violations are understandably common with these units.  Without limits and rules, it appears that people will do anything to make a buck.  While many in democratic countries consider government regulation evil, how can we justify allowing people to impose evil on the displaced? 

For now, most Americans reading this will think, “Wow, glad I don’t live in Hong Kong.”  But could this happen to us?  According to CNN, the existence of these living situations are caused by the “perfect (urban) storm: a combination of skyrocketing real-estate prices and arguably the biggest wealth gap in Asia” (CNN).   Considering the current economic conditions, real estate prices are skyrocketing, especially as the cost of living increases.  In the New York Times, an article was published talking about the newest census data in regards to wealth.  The conclusion: wealth disparities are continuing to grow.  In fact, “The declines have led to the largest wealth disparities in the 25 years that the [census] bureau has been collecting the data, according to the report (Recession Study Finds Hispanics Hit the Hardest, New York Times)”.  So real estate is skyrocketing and wealth disparities are rising.  Does this sound at all like the “perfect urban storm” to you? 

Some things to think about:

  • Hong Kong landlords consider providing coffin homes noble, as this provides an alternative to homelessness.  What do you think of their justification? 
  • How should this be handled in the United States, if landlords start renting out coffin homes here?
  • Should there be government standards on rented housing? 

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Incarceration: Are we committed to rehabilitation?

I did not ever meet someone who had served time in prison until my early 20s.  I was lucky to not have any family members or close friends incarcerated, while going through my formidable years.   While interning at a West Philadelphia non-profit, I first came into contact with and developed a friendship with someone who had been incarcerated.  When I got to learn more about this individual, the choices he made leading to incarceration and the impact of his incarceration upon his family, I began to question the purpose of prison.

Prison serves many purposes for our society: retribution for violation of law, removing the “bad seeds” from society to insure safety, deterring the general population from criminal behavior, and rehabilitation.  What do I consider the purpose of prison?  What do you consider to be the purpose of prison?    It is interesting how our society places great value upon the first three purposes over the last. 

Often, I find that I will fall into society’s trap, listening to the messages through crime dramas, highly sensationalize media crime coverage, directing me to value a sense of safety over rehabilitation.  These messages put little faith in individual transformation.   When I fall in the trap, I find myself believing that prison is confine society’s "bad seeds" so that “good” people like me are safe.   When I think of the high numbers of people incarcerated in the United States, which far succeeds other nations, it seems reasonable to believe that we are not fully committed to rehabilitation.   This leads me to question, am I committed to rehabilitation?

The man I met is one proof that rehabilitation is possible, as he served his time in prison and did not return.  For many in the United State’s prison system, approximately 40% (who will return to prison within three years of leaving), this is not the case (Pew Foundation's report: State of Recidivism).  Recidivism is a large issue for our country, one that is starting to be more properly addressed within recent years.  Recidivism occurs for two reasons:  having committed a new crime or violation of supervision/parole.   In reading the Pew Foundation’s study State of Recidivism, I noticed that the majority of recidivism cases occurred due to violation of parole.   How does parole serve these individuals?  I question whether prisoners are prepared in prison to meet the expectations of parole out of prison and if there should be more grace extended before parole violators are shipped back to prison.

When you look at Philadelphia’s prison population, the majority of prisoners there last year, had been charged with a minor drug offense, violated parole, or waiting trial.  I can’t help but question if all of these people are so dangerous that they must be “locked up.” Are we using prison to hold people that really don’t need to be there?  

Since starting to work with children whose parents have been imprisoned, I have been able to get a better look into the lives of prisoners, to see the challenges they and their family faces.   Children who have a parent that was and is incarcerated are found to be more likely to be imprisoned when they are adults.  Also, children of the incarcerated are far more likely to engage in risky behaviors and have lower grades in school.   Have any of these children experienced these pains of separation in vain?

From my recent research, it looks as if many states and even the city of Philadelphia have made improvements in the corrections system such as using more parole sentencing for less dangerous offenders.  Also, programs such as re-entry initiatives utilizing mentoring coupled with transitional services have helped to reduce recidivism rates.   Most of the effective re-entry services are starting shortly after someone is incarcerated to provide services that reconcile relationships between the incarcerated and their family as well as preparing them for their return to the community.  These services are what I consider the best methods of rehabilitation. 

By providing an alternative lifestyle with healthy relationships as an option, I think this creates an incentive to change.  Shouldn’t this be the goal, rather than holding someone in a cell for the rest of their lives?  Plus, this is a more cost effective solution.  Why do we still seem to value prison over rehabilitation services?  How has incarceration affected you or your family?  What is the purpose of prison? What does rehabilitation mean to you?  What solutions seem best to you?

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Success Determined by Where you Live?

Recently, I watched an episode of the TV show “Numbers” that caused me to engage my understanding of sociological theory.  This show features two main characters, an FBI agent and his mathematician brother, who collaborate in solving crime.   In this particular episode, there was a computer researcher who had been murdered and the bothers were trying to figure out why and who did it.  By the conclusion of the show, you find out the computer researcher had been developing a program, which would determine a person’s future success based upon their neighborhood of origin.  This program was being marketed to government agencies for determination of which neighborhoods would receive funding and which would not.  The antagonist’s motive for murder was to remove obstacles that would limit neighborhoods from equal access to resources.  The basis of the computer program, implied that certain individuals are more worthy to receive resources based upon their neighborhood of origin, which stems from a belief that poor neighbors are filled with less capable people.  It is interesting that the show did not conclude with a revelation that the antagonist motives portrayed the missing link for these communities… equal access and opportunity. 

A framing paper published by the Urban Institute entitled “Understanding How Place Matters for Kids” touched upon these above mentioned concepts. “Children growing up in high-poverty neighborhoods, with extreme levels of racial and economic segregation and inadequate public services—police, schools, sanitation, grocery stores—are at risk for a range of negative outcomes, including poor physical and mental health, cognitive delays, risky sexual behavior, and delinquency” (Leventhal and Brooks-Gunn 2000; Leventhal, Dupéré and Brooks-Gunn 2009; Sampson, Morenoff, and Gannon-Rowley 2002; Sampson et al. 2007).  There is minimal policy that addresses the relationship between place and youth development, which has spurred the Urban Institute to begin its research on neighborhood-level factors as it interacts with youth development.  This research premise is interesting, because it does not engage individuals within their smallest social institution of family or at an individual level.   Instead this research seeks to investigate the connection between successes and the larger social environment of community. 

This approaches reflects social disorganization theory, which identifies the characteristics of communities with high crime rates and draws on social control theory, basically stating the absence of particular “factors are said to reduce the ability or willingness of community residents to exercise effective social control, that is, to exercise direct control, provide young people with a stake in conformity, and socialize young people so that they condemn delinquency and develop self-control” (  The foundation of community organizing is to help community members find a stake in their community through relationships and empowerment.  Social disorganization theory indicates that residents in these “at risk” neighborhoods are less likely to have ties to their neighbors and to care about their community.  Community members must be invested in their communities, because without investment, community members become increasingly transient and detached.  Like the Urban Institute, this causes me to ask, “How has this detachment effected youth within communities?” 

I often find myself engaging older members of my own community on their options as to why the community “is not like it used to be.”  When I probe, the biggest difference often is that neighbors do not interact with one another like they did in the past. This most directly has impacted youth, because there is less supervision of their activity in the community.  In essence, when neighbors become detached, they feel less of a responsibility to help neighbors and offer the consistent supervision and accountability that youth need.  In the past, neighbors often felt free to supervise and reprimand the community’s youth, because they felt a level of intimacy with the community’s parental figures.  Given the lack of intimacy in neighborhoods, parents are more likely to reject this additional support.  This begs to question who is helping youth socially develop and find investment in their physical community and future.  As community organizing suggests, community members must be empowered to invest in their communities and change the things that cause cycles of negative behaviors.  The same is true for youth!

What do you think about social disorganization theory? Do you see it as a cause of negative youth development? What are some solutions you feel passionate about?