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Nightmarish conditions inside Ecuador’s prisons have exploded into international news. Overcrowding, a struggle for territory between drug cartels, and correctional officers’ loss of control inside carceral facilities set the scene for a series of prison riots beginning in February 2021 that have claimed the lives of numerous incarcerated people—just how many have been killed or injured is still not known.
The drug trade in Ecuador has been operating from its prisons for some time, but violence flared up after the charismatic leader of Ecuador’s largest drug cartel, Los Choneros, was murdered in late 2020. To attempt to address the problem, Ecuadorian President Guillermo Lasso in December 2021 convened a commission that, in his words, “would analyze the causes and effects of the current prison situation.” But according to Dr. Luis Barrios, a professor in John Jay’s Latin American and Latinx Studies Department and in the CUNY Graduate Center’s Psychology and Social Welfare programs, the conditions that allowed this to happen have been around since long before 2021.
“Stop saying this is an inmate issue,” he says, quoting a recent report from the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, “this is a structural, systemic issue.” Barrios points to a culture of reaction rather than prevention, a lack of effective public policy to deal with criminal justice matters, and pervasive corruption. All of this has created an environment inside the prisons where violence is incentivized. “In this type of environment, this is the way to survive. You kill or they kill you. That is part of the reality that we want to describe.”
Dr. Barrios serves as one of seven members of the independent commission created by President Lasso; his participation came at the request of the incarcerated. His scholarship brought him into contact with and gained the trust of gang members on the streets of Ecuador, New York City, and elsewhere, working with John Jay professor David Brotherton to study gangs as social organizations. Now he brings that expertise to this work, visiting prisons one week of every month through June 2022 in order to produce a report that will effect real change in Ecuador.
“As a commission, we went beyond diagnosis; we went inside the prison, we are spending quality time. You can feel the pain, frustration, and anger,” says Barrios. “So instead of just giving a diagnosis, we decided to create proposals that the government can implement immediately to deal with this prison crisis.”
Among the proposals called for by commission members: an increased focus on crime prevention rather than punishment; human rights protections; decentralization of the legal and judicial system; better training for correctional officers and prison administrators; an effective prison census; and access to health services and educational opportunities for the incarcerated, including programs that give inmates other options besides engaging in the drug trade.
Dr. Barrios brings his activism to both of his vocations: academia and the priesthood. He sees both as complimentary opportunities to empower communities and work for justice. This work informs his objections to the Ecuadorian government’s proposed “mano dura,” or zero tolerance, approach to shutting down gang violence in prisons. Above all, he seeks to use his role on the commission to protect Ecuador’s vulnerable incarcerated populations and guarantee that the government respects human rights. “There’s no neutrality when it comes to dealing with justice,” he says. “You take the side of justice or you take sides against it—when you say you’re not going to get involved, you are already involved.”
Dr. Luis Barrios has been a faculty member at John Jay College for 28 years, and at CUNY for even longer. During that time, he has worked on projects that blend social action and scholarship, involving gangs and gang violence, deportation, human rights, clinical work focused on trauma and abuse, and contemporary perspectives of life on the Dominican-Haitian border.
John Jay College, along with CUNY schools across the city, are moving toward the resumption of on-campus life. Classes are attended in-person, events are being planned, and professors and students alike are headed back into the laboratory. I talked to one of John Jay’s professors in the Department of Sciences, Dr. Jason Rauceo, to find out what it’s been like closing down and reopening his lab.
Dr. Rauceo is an Associate Professor of Biology whose research focuses on the major fungal pathogen Candida albicans. He is also the Director of the Cell and Molecular Biology major at John Jay. In 2021, Dr. Rauceo received a four-year grant from the National Institutes of Health to study the role of the mitochondrion in C. albicans’ ability to infect hosts and cause disease.
What was it like to get back to lab work after a significant time away during the early part of the pandemic? Did you have to change any protocols or make adjustments to your operating procedures?
Right before CUNY closed in March 2020, I shut the lab down with the expectation that I would not return for 6-12 months. I returned to campus in September 2020, and the major challenge was reopening the lab myself. Students were not allowed on campus, and I needed to calibrate several instruments that I had limited experience operating. Fortunately, my students were available via Zoom and FaceTime for assistance.
What does a typical day in the lab look like, if there is such a thing?
The day usually begins with a short one-to-one meeting with whomever is scheduled to perform an experiment, in which we mainly discuss logistics. Throughout the day, I periodically check in to assist and address any experimental issues if needed. At the end of the day, I inspect the lab to make sure that workspaces are cleaned, all reagents and supplies are properly stored, and all students have left the lab.
What function do students play in your lab?
Students perform the hands-on experimentation and data analysis, and are responsible for general lab maintenance. They also contribute to the development of their projects, which must be directly related to the lab agenda—in this case, C. albicans biology. Students may propose their own experiments for approval after approximately 1.5 to 2 years of experience in the lab.
You place a lot of emphasis on experiential-based learning. What does that mean in practice for your students?
I allow students to test their own hypotheses when safety and costs are not an issue. Also, I allow students to make their own errors during initial training exercises. I found that this approach in lab research builds confidence.
Generally, in the early stages of a new project, a significant amount of time is devoted to optimizing protocols to meet our objectives. During this “optimization phase” of the research, there is an extensive level of troubleshooting required, and a high level of error and ambiguity is observed. I found that a major payoff of experiential-based learning and training is that students propose unique approaches to addressing experimental obstacles.
Your study of SPFH (Stomatin, Prohibitin, Flotillin, HflK/HflC) proteins’ role in mitochondrial function in Candida albicans is being funded by the NIH. It seems that there are some exciting implications for developing antifungal treatments—can you tell me about that?
SPFH proteins are widely conserved in nature and are found in most living organisms. These proteins are important for major biological processes including, but not limited to, respiration, transport, and communication. Candida albicans is a fungus that resides in all humans on mucosal surfaces such as the mouth and gastrointestinal tract in a harmless state. However, changes in our immunity sometimes cause C. albicans infections. Immunocompromised individuals are highly susceptible to C. albicans infections.
Currently, the function of SPFH proteins is limited in C. albicans. We were the first research group to demonstrate that SPFH proteins are required when C. albicans is challenged with environmental stress. Our current proposal seeks to define the molecular function of SPFH proteins. We are collaborating with several prominent research groups in fungal biology and medicinal chemistry to determine the function of the SPFH proteins in mitochondrial function.
One of our project aims is to understand the effects of treating C. albicans with natural compounds that target SPFH proteins. Our initial findings are promising and may be useful in developing novel antifungal strategies.
The NIH award provided me with the funds to expand my lab operations, and I’ve recruited three new undergraduate students; therefore, I will be spending much of the next semester in student training and performing experiments.
During the chaotic years of the Trump Administration, the United States experienced a rise in hate crimes. This increase has been confirmed by FBI data collection, media reporting, and independent scholarship. According to Dr. Frank Pezzella, an Associate Professor of Criminal Justice at John Jay College and a scholar of hate crimes, four out of the past five years, from 2015 to 2019, have seen consecutive increases in hate crime offending in this country, something he says is new. Nine of the ten largest American cities had the most dramatic increases in hate crimes – including New York City.
Hate crimes, or bias crimes, are strictly defined by the FBI. The organization sets out 14 indicators that must be present for a criminal offense to be classified as a hate or bias crime, that provide objective evidence that the crime was motivated by bias. But according to Dr. Pezzella, the evidence to meet those criteria isn’t always clear. Not every hate crime is as flagrant as the Pulse nightclub shooting in 2016 or the 2018 attack on Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life Synagogue. To establish a hate crime was committed, first responding police officers must look for evidence of bias motivation – what Pezzella calls an “elevated mens rea” requirement. But bias can only be committed against legally protected categories, like race and ethnicity, sexual or gender orientation, disability, or religion, which vary from state to state. And the additional paperwork and procedural requirements that come with classifying an incident as a hate crime are, in his words, disincentivizing police reporting.
Undercounting Hate Crimes
The result of these complications is rampant underreporting. In his new book, The Measurement of Hate Crimes in America, Dr. Pezzella looks at the reasons why hate crimes are so undercounted in the United States, and proposes some solutions for what law enforcement and policymakers can do to correct the issue. Since the enactment of the federal Hate Crimes Statistics Act in 1990, which required the Attorney General to collect data about hate crimes, the FBI has been fulfilling this mandate in the form of the Hate Crime Statistics Program, published annually as part of the Uniform Crime Report. According to Dr. Pezzella, since 1990 the UCR has reported an average of roughly 8,000 hate crimes per year; but victims, he says, report around 250,000 hate crimes per year. He attributes this substantial gap to a variety of factors including the evidentiary and procedural barriers noted above. In addition, only about 100,000 of these victimizations are ever reported to the police in the first place. And when victims do report, police departments are under no legal requirement to pass their findings on to the FBI.
“Of the roughly 18,500 police departments, only maybe 75% participate in the Uniform Crime Report hate crime reporting program – note that it is voluntary,” says Pezzella. “So we don’t even know about hate crimes in 25% of precincts. And of the participating 75%, roughly 90% report zero hate crimes every year. So one of the reasons we wrote the book is that, either we don’t have hate crimes the way we think we do, or we have a systemic reporting problem.” It’s obvious which he believes is true.
The consequences of underreporting hate crimes are severe, Dr. Pezzella says. “To the extent that we underreport both the type and extent of victimization, it really does put a specific policy issue in front of us. We need to know who’s being affected, how they’re being affected, and the extent of the effect, in order to fashion remedies.” The only way to target treatment and services for the most vulnerable and likely victims is through accurate reporting.
In order to remedy undercounting and better target policy, Dr. Pezzella presents a number of recommendations in The Measurement of Hate Crimes in America. He calls for changes to take place within police departments, at the level of state and local politics, and in the criminal legal system. First, he suggests that every precinct have a written and clearly posted hate crime policy, and that every officer be trained to understand the rules for identifying bias crimes and the statutes governing them in their particular state. He would also like to see greater police-community engagement on this issue, with better tracking of non-criminal bias incidents – like seeing a swastika or other racist tag in the neighborhood – which Pezzella says often lead to violent bias crimes. He would especially like to see hate crime reporting made mandatory, with penalties or audits following a departmental report of zero bias crimes in a year.
Stepping out of police departments, Dr. Pezzella also calls for greater engagement from state and local politicians, who after all control the purse strings as well as set state legislation, but who are often hesitant to call attention to a problem with hate crimes in their district. Finally, he wants prosecutors’ offices to commit to seeking hate crime convictions, rather than settling for the easier task of convicting an offender for non-bias equivalents. With every actor across the board invested in tackling hate crimes and being transparent and proactive about applying best practices, offenders are put on notice that the community, including police, won’t allow these harmful crimes to continue.
Dr. Pezzella has been studying hate crimes since his graduate school years at SUNY-Albany, but he doesn’t feel he’s reached the end of this line of research. Going forward, he is interested in studying the deleterious and vicarious effects hate crimes can have on the victims’ communities. Because bias-motivated offenders target victims based on what they are rather than what they do, Dr. Pezzella says, there is a sense that anyone could become the next victim. This impersonal threat undermines societal ideals of trust and equality, and can even affect property values, as whole groups feel unsafe in certain areas and may be forced to relocate. Pezzella also mentions the psychological and emotional impacts of feeling under threat for simply being who and what you are. “When a victim goes home and says they were a victim of a hate crime, in what way does it impact the quality of life or sense of safety for secondary victims [i.e., the victim’s community]?” he asks. “What do they do? While we understand the direct impact, we know less about this vicarious impact, and how far it extends beyond the primary victim.”
He also has his eye on current events, especially the rise of domestic terrorism in the United States. Dr. Pezzella is concerned about the growing number of organized hate groups in recent years, and how emboldened they have been by rhetoric from the top levels of government. While many mass shootings have been categorized as domestic terrorism, Pezzella also sees evidence of bias that might categorize these events as hate crimes. If they are being left out of crucial counts that help to allocate resources and fight back against hate in this country, he wants to know.
Dr. Frank Pezzella is an Associate Professor of Criminal Justice at John Jay College. His primary research focus is on the causes, correlates, and consequences of hate crimes victimizations. He also conducts research on issues that relate to race, crime and justice. In addition to his most recent book, he is also the author of Hate Crime Statutes: A Public Policy and Law Enforcement Dilemma, as well as numerous peer-reviewed articles.
Victoria Bond is a lecturer in John Jay College of Criminal Justice’s English Department, and the co-author with T. R. Simon of a series of young adult novels inspired by the childhood of American literary icon Zora Neale Hurston. The Zora and Me trilogy fictionalizes a young Zora as what The New York Times calls a “girl detective,” living in Hurston’s real-life hometown of Eatonville, Florida. Through the use of tropes from mystery and horror, the books explore community, and the fragility of justice for Black people.
In the first novel, Zora and Me, stories about a shape-shifter lead Zora and her best friend Carrie (the narrator) to solve a murder mystery. The second novel of the series, The Cursed Ground, sees Carrie and Zora learning more about the dark, unforgiveable history of slavery from a ghost. And in Bond’s latest and final novel, Zora and Me: The Summoner, Eatonville experiences upheaval that causes Zora’s family to seek their fortunes elsewhere. The use of zombies in this book, Bond says, is a way to explore the exploitation and trauma of African American lives.
Each installment of the trilogy may incorporate dark, scary elements, but, according to Kirkus Reviews, the brilliance of the novels is that they are able to render African American children’s lives during the Jim Crow era as “a time of wonder and imagination, while also attending to their harsh realities.”
Zora Neale Hurston was born in Alabama in 1891 and published several novels and many short stories, plays and essays, although she is best known for her classic Harlem Renaissance novel, Their Eyes Were Watching God. Zora and Me was the first novel not written by Hurston herself that has been endorsed by the Zora Neale Hurston Trust, founded in 2002. To bring the real Zora’s experiences in her hometown of Eatonville, Florida, to life, Bond and Simon researched Hurston’s life extensively by reading her biographies and her 1942 autobiography, Dust Tracks on a Road. They sought to create a story right for young adult readers that was true to the historical period in which it takes place, and which features a smart, spirited Black girl with a vivid imagination, ready to inspire other girls.
Zora and Me: The Summoner is forthcoming from Candlewick Press on October 13, 2020, and available for preorder now. To learn more about Zora Neale Hurston from author Vicky Bond, watch her in this short video on YouTube. Or to learn more about the experience of writing a novel during these uniquely difficult times, read this post from the author.