Sunday, August 28, 2011

A couple of responses to a(nother) post at SocImages

I really do like reading SocImages, since it often brings up issues that are not relevant to my own area of study. However, many of the topics are germane to everyday life as well as perspectives on it. Furthermore, because of this, it's quite interesting to look at the reactions that people (including myself) have about their interpretation (and -- inevitably -- the interpretations of others). Occasionally, the author of a blog post seems to reach a little too far to make a point -- we are all guilty of that on occasion -- and often get called out on it. Sometimes, though, the reaching seems to go unnoticed (or perhaps I just notice it early on, since it shows up on my RSS feed), and I point it out. This happened in a recent post about how the Rikers Island prison didn't have any hurricane evacuation status and linking this lack of evacuation status to a perceived lack of compassion for prison inmates seen during the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. While I didn't have a lot of problem with the many of the points made in the post, it seemed to me to be less objective with the facts than it could have been, and it didn't seem to me that the author considered alternative explanations for the same facts.
From your quote from the NYTimes blog, the problem appears to be as much an administrative one as a physical one (that then results in a combined administrative and logistical problem):
no hypothetical evacuation plan for the roughly 12,000 inmates that the facility may house on a given day even exists. Contingencies do exist for smaller-scale relocations from one facility to another.
This speaks -- to me -- more to the department of corrections being blind-sided by this event; something that hasn't happened since 1938. Yes, pulling together contingency plans for awhat if scenario for evacuating Rikers Island in the event of a hurricane could have been undertaken following the 1938 hurricane, but it would also have to have been periodically updated as conditions in the area (and in the prison) changed, and the investment would likely have been seen as wasteful spending during eras of budget cuts (and likely scrapped, thus needing another administration to re-start investments in the planning process).
Voters don't like what is perceived to be "wasteful government spending", and continuous spending to update evacuation plans for an island prison complex due to a 100-year-event (as the flooding from the hurricane was forecast to be) could well fall inside that perception of "wasteful government spending."
Could not the city have started moving people out to other facilities ahead of time? Well, perhaps, but I don't know (and likely most readers of this blog don't know) the logistic difficulties that are inherent with scaling up the NYTimes blog's statement of, "Contingencies do exist for smaller-scale relocations from one facility to another." How much police effort would have to be shifted from other public-safety operations? What would the political heat on the city be if New Yorkers discovered that the city government was (to put easy spin on it) 'spending money saving criminals instead of the innocent citizens of the city'? 
I noted earlier that it seemed to me that the department of corrections was blind-sided by this event. I previously established that it was popularly quoted as being a potential 100-year flood event (and thus likely was not planned for -- or had updated plans maintained). If you can agree that it was highly unlikely that there was decent planning (and updated plans) available, then let's look at the problem in light of the time line, because (given enough time), perhaps Rikers could have transferred some of the inmates, using their contingency plans. I looked around the NOAA site, but could not find accurate information that confirms what I recall: the hurricane forecasts placing the storm over NYC didn't start to come out until last Monday (August 21), which would mean that Rikers would have had less than six days to move out a significant number of inmates to other facilities based on plans that were only meant for contingencies of moving a smaller number of inmates.
If we were -- in sum -- a people who did care a modicum more about these people who are in our custody (extrapolated from us, since we have an ostensibly representative government), then we would likely have had adequate flooding predictions to include Rikers (instead of having to extrapolate -- sans data -- to say things like "despite the fact that the island is surrounded by areas with the second highest evacuation rating") as well as monies to put toward adequate planning to cover such rare occurrences as this one. (After all, a 100-year flooding event means that each year there is a statistical 1/100 chance that it will happen, not that a flooding event won't happen for another 100 years.) However, we are a society that (more often than not) praise law enforcement officials and politicians who are "tough on crime" (which usually means "no compromising with felons" and often means "don't give prisoners more stuff"), and therefore we get situations like a prison island that has no viable plan to relocate an house its inmates in the face of a hurricane. (And this is exacerbated by the fact that hurricanes don't have a history of hitting NYC -- or come close to hitting it -- very often).
If we are to have the responsibility of governance as a people (think: "We the people" and "government of the people, by the people, for the people"), then we need to learn to think about those whose lives are held by us. However, while I state this point of humanist governance, I would also caution people to (seemingly) jumping directly to conclusions of the one above. The historical condition viz hurricanes is significantly different than New Orleans. Likely, too, Rikers is a very different sort of prison than those in New Orleans, requiring a very different level of logistical and administrative coordination. (And don't forget about the vastly different legal, political, and social differences between New York and Louisiana nor New York City and New Orleans.) Making the direct link -- without making reference to these differences and the ones I outlined above -- is sloppy analysis.
I think that my meta-analysis is right: for various reasons, the explanation given in the post was not a very good analysis of the problem as one that matched the author's apparent thesis: that New York City didn't care about it's inmates leading up to Hurricane Irene, just like New Orleans didn't care about its inmates leading up to Hurricane Katrina.

In doing some online investigation for my response, I noticed something in the author's post that I couldn't square with the Wikipedia entry about the history of Rikers Island. The Wikipedia entry stated that it was purchased by the Dutch in the 17th Century, but the article made it sound that it was potentially all built on reclaimed land. The author provided a link to the source article for that sentence, but when I looked at it, I noticed something a little more problematic (from an academic point of view, that is):

Re: "Solitary Watch reports that Rikers Island was built on landfill, which is especially vulnerable to disasters."
This is an incorrect citation of the fact and a fudging of the implications in two parts.
First, the incorrect citation: Solitary Watch did, indeed, have this information, but it clearly cited its source as the New York City Department of Corrections' website (not themselves). Proper citation should mention this, rather than merely pointing to Solitary Watch. Therefore, something like "Solitary Watch -- reporting figures from New York City's own Department of Corrections -- reports that..." would have been far more accurate. (Sorry, but freshmen would have been marked down for that mistake in my classes.)
The first of what seems to me to be fudging: You state that it "was built on landfill", which -- without greater knowledge of the facts -- makes no distinction between the entirety of the island vs a portion of the island. Looking again at Solitary Watch, we find that their figure (from NYCDoC) is that "more than three-quarters" is built on landfill. Now, while that is a huge percent, it is a fudging of the original cited figure. Since you have a PhD, this being a mere slip-up seems rather dubious, since the number is right there in the citation, and because the island pre-existed the settlement by the Dutch in the 17th Century (i.e., it couldn't have all been "built on landfill"). (Sorry, but more points off for massaging the data.)
The second of what seems to me to be fudging: You state that it "is especially vulnerable to disasters," which is again not what Solitary Watch said, which was that it "is generally thought to be more vulnerable to natural disasters." As a writer, the difference between your "is especially vulnerable" and the original "generally thought to be more vulnerable" are worlds apart. Your use is a declarative statement of fact, while Solitary Watch's is not, so unless you are an engineer qualified in determining the structural integrity of such an island add-on, then you should not make the definitive statement of "is". (Sorry, again, but mangling the difference between "is" and "thought to be" only seems to point to again massaging the data to make it fit your narrative.)
I am not arguing that Rikers Island is now mostly constituted of landfill. Nor am I arguing that reclaimed land is more structurally sound than natural geological landforms. (However, I am arguing that you did a poor job of citing the source of the fact that Rikers was partially built on landfill.) 
I am pointing out, though, that within one sentence, you have committed three distinct academic fouls that would have lowered many a student's grade for what would be countenanced as factual sloppiness at best. Furthermore, recognizing these fouls only diminishes the strength of your argument, since I now have to wonder about the verisimilitude of your entire argument. (And holding a PhD only makes these errors more egregious in my opinion, since I would expect you to know better.)
Yes, I'm no fan when people with PhDs go around and mis-attribute facts and less of a fan of PhDs who go around and bend wording into such phrasing as to lead to a different reading of the points in question. The author should have acted with intellectual honesty and provided the source for the fact of Rikers being partially built on reclaimed land as the New York City Department of Corrections, and not Solitary Watch. One must cite the original source of factual data or -- if the actual original source (say, in this case, a surveyor's report) is not available -- a reputable and/or authoritative source that can attest to the fact. Failing this, one should make it clear that a source (such as Solitary Watch) is secondary. The verb "report" does not imply one way or another whether the source was primary or secondary, but merely that a written account was given of something investigated (primary source) or received (secondary source). To many people, this may seem a nit-pick, but it in academia, this can be a quite important distinction.

Also, for some people, the difference between "is" and "thought to be" as well as the difference between "was built on landfill" and "more than three-quarters is on a landfill" are word-choice differences. However, if you add up enough of these small "word-choice differences" you can get a very different message. For example, while the original source's wording can be generously read as, "almost all of the prison is built on reclaimed land, which many people think can be a problem in natural disasters," the author's wording provides an even greater generous reading of, "the whole prison is built on reclaimed land, which is a problem in natural disasters." This is a set of differences, which (if continued over the course of a lengthy discourse or series of discourses) can lead to final interpretations as distinct as Catholicism and Unitarianism.

What puzzles me the most about this one sentence that I pulled out for examination was how unnecessary its interpretation was. The author could just as easily taken a direct quote from the Solitary Watch website, since the sentence is a mere re-wording of a sentence on that page.

1 comment:

azizi said...

I read your post on socimages and very much agree with what you wrote.

It's not that I think that there aren't problems at Riker's Island. I believe that the state's administration and probably most of the residents' of that state could care less about the well being of prisoners. But those weren't the points that you raised.

Btw, my frustration with some SocImages posts led me to finally start my own blog today. I'd love you to visit it!