Media Are Key to Battling Myths About Domestic Violence, Panel Told

In an era of falling crime rates, spousal abuse often disappears from the radar screen of public attention. But journalists can play a critical role in providing context—and help prevent future tragedies, speakers at a John Jay College panel said Tuesday.

The media can play a critical role in battling stereotypes about domestic violence—most importantly in puncturing myths that blame the victim rather than the perpetrator, speakers at a New York panel discussion on media coverage said Tuesday.

“We’re happy to see that this issue is covered a lot,” said Sandhya Kajeepeta, director of Research and Evaluation at the New York City Mayor’s Office to Combat Domestic Violence (MOCDV).

Sandhya Kajepeeta

Sandhya Kajepeeta. Photo by Megan Hadley

But she noted that recent research of media coverage by her office showed that reporting often fails to mention relevant research or to utilize the expertise of practitioners who can put incidents in context.

Just as importantly, journalists can help alert potential victims to warning signals and lead them to organizations in local communities that can help, she said at the panel, co-hosted by the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, and John Jay’s Center on Media, Crime and Justice.

The event, which was live streamed to an audience across the country, noted that domestic violence continues to be a growing concern to police and social service providers, even while overall crime rates have dropped in many U.S. cities.

According to the MOCDV study, the number of family-related homicides in New York City, which has otherwise seen one of the nation’s longest sustained declines in crime, increased by 28.6 percent between 2015 and 2016. Over 60 percent of those homicides were directly related to intimate partner violence.

But covering the story sometimes puts reporters and survivors at loggerheads.

Destiny Mabry

Destiny Mabry. Photo by Megan Hadley

Destiny Mabry, a Bronx, NY activist who was a victim of intimate partner violence, recalled feeling uncomfortable when reporters pushed her to talk about her abusive relationship.

“It’s important to share experiences, but if someone is not willing to share more than ‘I’m a survivor,’ they should not have to go into gruesome detail,” said Mabry. who now serves as a “peer leader’ in a New York City program that hosts workshops with young people to discuss domestic violence.

“In the age of social media, everyone wants every detail,” she added.

Melissa Jeltsen, a senior reporter at The Huffington Post, agreed that the interests of survivors and reporters are sometimes completely opposite.

For instance, she said, reporters need specific dates to create a timeline, while survivors may not remember (or want to remember) the order of events.

“You want your readers to connect with a real story,” she said, noting that a lot of the specifics are red flags that can help prevent the next tragedy.

Jeltsen, whose beat includes gender-based violence issues, said educating readers about how to prevent domestic violence should be an important part of media coverage—even though talking about prevention is not as “sexy.”

According to Kajepeeta, media coverage should start with the recognition of its power to reach victims of abuse.

Every story, she suggested, should contain when possible a hotline number or contact information about a service center.

The MOCDV media guide, she said, could help journalists and editors access resources that deepen their coverage.

The research study examined domestic violence coverage by print news outlets in the New York metropolitan region between 2013-2016.

Among its findings:

  • Only ten of the 442 articles (2.3 percent) covering NYC intimate partner homicides from 2013-16 included an intimate partner violence advocate or expert as a source.’
  • Only 15 percent of articles used terms such as “domestic violence,” “intimate partner violence,” or “domestic abuse,” and less than eight percent of the articles described the homicide as being intimate partner violence-related.
  • Less than six percent of the articles studied framed the homicide within the broader social problem of intimate partner violence.
  • Only seven articles (1.6 percent) listed intimate partner violence resources for readers.

But Jeltsen pointed out that journalists often themselves encounter stereotypes promoted by police and other officials when they try to report on domestic violence incidents.

She recalled interviewing police who claim that “women never want to press charges and they’ll go back to their abuser anyway.”

That helps to reinforce the approach of many officials who say ‘there’s nothing we can do,’ ” Jeltsen said.

Melissa Jeltsen

Melissa Jeltsen. Photo by Megan Hadley

But the media has also been a key force in bringing the issue to the forefront. Following the mass killing in Sutherland Springs, Tx last month, journalists uncovered the history of domestic abuse perpetrated by the shooter.

After the tragedy occurred, the media was responsible for uncovering Kelley’s previous abuse history.

“A lot of the data (on domestic abuse) is not collected in a systematic way,” said Kajeepeta, noting that the media are key to uncovering information that is otherwise concealed by bureaucracy.

New York is among the jurisdictions that have launched a special effort to educate citizens about abusive behavior and assist survivors. Following the launch of a city Task Force a year ago, more than $11 million has been earmarked to improve and expand local services.

Editor’s Note: Additional resources for coverage of Intimate Partner Violence are available through the Rhode Island Coalition Against Domestic Violence, and The Connecticut Coalition Against Domestic Violence. 

A full report of the live stream panel discussion will be available online.

Megan Hadley is a news intern with The Crime Report. Readers’ comments are welcomed.


Does Evidence Matter in Justice Policymaking?

For two decades, criminal justice advocates have been promoting the idea of basing anticrime policy on scientific evidence. But is anyone listening? Leading criminologists address the question at a Philadelpia conference.

For two decades, criminal justice advocates have been talking up the idea of basing anticrime policy on scientific evidence.

How much is it actually happening nationwide?

That question was on the table Thursday at the American Society of Criminology’s annual meeting, held this year in Philadelphia. Criminologists long have complained that policymakers tend to ignore their studies and pursue ideas based more on whims than science.

Laurie Robinson, former Assistant U.S. Attorney General now on the faculty of George Mason University, believes there has been much progress but also a lot of resistance to the idea of backing up justice policy with solid research.

In the first of two Robinson stints at DOJ, a report assessing what works in fighting crime and what doesn’t helped her cut federal funding for programs like Drug Abuse Resistance Education (DARE) and military-style boot camps for low-level offenders.

Still, dubious ideas like gun buy-backs by police agencies keep recurring even though studies have found them ineffective.

“Science has a hard time combatting emotionally popular programs,” Robinson said during a panel discussing the topic.

Edward Mulvey of the University of Pittsburgh, who heads a Science Advisory Board at DOJ, agreed that evidence on the spread of evidence-based programs is mixed.

Many “unsound policies” remain in the criminal justice world, partly because much of the public doesn’t see the value of waiting for evidence to justify a policy change, Mulvey said.

He takes the “long view” that proved practices eventually will prevail over “media headlines” about ideas that prove ineffective.

The Trump administration has said that it will retain the science board at OJP, which was established by former Attorney General Eric Holder.

At the National Institute of Justice (NIJ), DOJ’s research agency, David Muhlhausen has moved from the Heritage Foundation to become director.

At Thursday’s criminology program, Muhlhausen declared that “science-based crime policy is on the rise, but we need to improve — we’re not where we want to be.”

Mulhausen is enthusiastic about a website established by Robinson,, which assesses the effectiveness of many anticrime programs that have been studied.

Muhlhausen’s primary concern is that there are too many program evaluations that are “quasi experimental” — far from definitive because they weren’t done using the “randomized controlled trials” in which people getting an experimental treatment are compared with similar groups who aren’t subjected to it.

He cited the example of drug courts, which he said had repeatedly been evaluated using the “quasi experimental” method.

The new NIJ director said that in general, he wanted to stop funding government-subsidized programs that don’t work, to avoid a “waste of taxpayers’ money.”

His criticism wasn’t limited to the Justice Department.

Muhlhausen cited a project of the Department of Labor supporting job training for former prisoners that the agency touted while not disclosing that a randomized controlled trial showed it was ineffective.

He also cited the Hawaii-based HOPE program (Hawaii Opportunity Probation with Enforcement), which puts some criminal defendants on probation under the threat of quick punishment if they violate rules.

Muhlhausen said an initial evaluation in Hawaii found the program valuable but randomized controlled trials in other states cast doubt on it.

“We have to be careful to define ‘what works,'” Muhlhausen said Thursday.

Muhlhausen admitted that evidence-based anticrime policies would be a “tough sell” to some audiences, such as working police officers.

He is supporting a project to instill academic concepts more widely among the ranks of criminal justice practitioners, a group he dubbed “pracademics.”

One leading justice practitioner who agreed that it can be difficult to instill evidentiary principles in the work of police and other criminal justice workers was Gil Kerlikowske, a former Seattle police chief and director of National Drug Policy under President Obama.

Kerlikowske noted that many large police departments had improved their techniques in such areas as videotaping confessions and obtaining witness identifications of crime suspects, but that many smaller departments had not caught up with needed changes. He said the academic community bears some of the blame for not offering their expertise to small police agencies.

Criminologists seemed pleased that NIJ’s Muhlhausen had embraced evidence-based policymaking in a presidential administration that has shunned scientific evidence in areas such as climate change.

Still, Alfred Blumstein of Carnegie Mellon University expressed doubt that Muhlhausen could insist on the “gold standard” of randomized controlled trials for most studies of anticrime projects.

Important areas such as the death penalty aren’t appropriate for such experiments, Blumstein said.

Muhlhausen agreed that every crime study couldn’t be a randomized controlled trial. He repeatedly said that he wants NIJ to “advance the ball” and not to fund repeated studies that don’t aim to break significant new ground.

Ted Gest is president of Criminal Justice Journalists and Washington Bureau Chief of The Crime Report.


A Nun’s Unsolved Murder: Baltimore Cold Case Gets Hotter

Journalists probing the 47-year-old murder of Sister Catherine Ann Sesnik have turned up links between her death and five other unsolved killings. Police confirm a WJZ-TV report they are investigating whether the killings were tied to a coverup of sexual abuse by Catholic priests and cops in Baltimore in the 1970s.

The grisly story of a young Catholic nun’s murder—still unsolved—took a shocking new twist Monday night when a Baltimore television station quoted both witnesses and a police spokesperson in a news telecast which suggested that five additional murders (four of them involving teenagers) were linked to rampant sex abuse by both Catholic priests and local police during an 11-year period that began in 1970.

cold case

Sister Catherine Ann Cesnik.

The story on WJZ-TV—the CBS outlet in Baltimore—marked the first time ever that a mainstream news organization has reported on a current police investigation of apparent connections between six different unsolved murders and Catholic Church/police sexual assaults in Baltimore.

While confirming the fact that Baltimore County cold case detectives are currently looking for connections between the unsolved killings and the sexual abuse, county police spokesperson Corporal Shawn Vinson told WJZ: “We’ll continue to try to look for any leads, any additional evidence that we can find.”

The groundbreaking news program on the six unsolved murders stemmed from recent disclosures unearthed during a local, 22-year-long reporting effort. Those findings were published in Inside Baltimore, an independent online newspaper last August.

The independent paper reported then that law enforcement officials in Maryland were studying the six murders in search of possible links that might connect them to sex abuse by priests and cops at a former girls’ Catholic high school in the city of Baltimore.

But last night’s report by WJZ broke new ground on the story, while quoting a childhood friend of a Catholic altar boy, 14-year-old Danny Crocetti, who was found stabbed to death near a Catholic church in Baltimore County in March of 1975.

The friend of the victim, a classmate of the altar boy, explained how “Danny was found in a stream,” not far from Our Lady of Victory Church. She then described a brutal murder in which the child had been “stabbed in the throat” and was later found dead “behind the Catholic school.”

The startling WJZ newscast came in the wake of an Emmy-nominated Netflix true-crime documentary, The Keepers, which last May drew millions of viewers to its tragic story of how a 26-year-old teaching nun had been found murdered in 1970, after reportedly trying to blow the whistle on widespread sexual abuse at her Catholic high school in Baltimore.

See also:  Cracking the Stonewall on a Nun’s Murder: A Reporter’s Story (TCR Nov 8, 2017).

As they continue to try to solve the murder of Sister Catherine Ann Cesnik and the other five young people slain between 1970 and 1981, cold case investigators in Maryland point out that they believe there are disturbing links between the murders, and that the later victims may have been killed because they too had been threatening to report the rapes by priests and cops.

The Archdiocese of Baltimore (AOB), meanwhile, has responded to the reports of abuse and murder by awarding cash “settlements” to more than a dozen abuse victims in recent years. Those awards, usually accompanied by “apologies” from Archdiocesan officials, now total more than $500,000, according to the AOB.

Tom Nugent is the author of Death at Buffalo Creek (W.W. Norton), a book of investigative journalism about a coal mining-related disaster that killed 125 people and left thousands homeless in Appalachia. He is also the publisher of an online newspaper, Inside Baltimore. Tom welcomes comments from readers.


Public Safety Summit Draws Officials From 50 States

Pennsylvania corrections chief John Wetzel launched the two-day Washington meeting with an appeal to legislators, corrections administrators, police chiefs and health officials to work together on evidence-based solutions. Another speaker said the White House would back unspecified reforms.

To many Americans, “criminal justice reform” means addressing two prominent challenges: reining in abusive police officers or cutting prison populations.

This week, the Council of State Governments Justice Center and the Association of State Correctional Administrators brought teams from all 50 states to Washington, D.C., to underline the fact that reform means much more than that.


John E. Wetzel. Photo courtesy Pennsylvania Department of Corrections.

In opening remarks Monday to the two-day “50-State Summit on Public Safety,” Pennsylvania Corrections Secretary John E. Wetzel called on fellow justice officials to abandon the “stovepipe approach” of handling issues in isolated silos of the justice system and seek cooperation with experts in other areas.

Wetzel’s remarks set the tone for the meeting, which was aimed at presenting officials in each state with a detailed analysis of their crime issues, including trends in arrests, recidivism and “behavioral health,” and help them come up with evidence-based solutions.

Summit attendees include all state prison directors, 41 state legislators, 35 state behavioral health directors, 15 police chiefs, and 12 sheriffs.

A major theme that surfaced early in the session is that issues often labelled as “criminal justice” problems, such as mental illness and addiction, can be handled just as well by public health authorities.

“Mental health needs are overwhelming the criminal justice system,” warned Fred Osher of the state government group, who presided over a panel on “Growing Crises.”

“Crime in the U.S. often is described only in terms of national trends, while in reality, the problem differs greatly among states and localities. For example, the violent crime rate nationally is much lower than it was in the 1990s, but 18 states have reported rising violence totals in recent years.”

A panel of three police chiefs, Renee Hall of Dallas, J. Thomas Manger of Montgomery County, Md., and Anthony Campbell of New Haven, Ct., discussed a range of approaches being tried in their areas, including more police involvement with schools, and programs to help chronic criminals get jobs.

Hall said police “are not social workers,” but they still believe in forging partnerships with businesses and outside the justice system to help reduce repeat criminality.

In fact, recidivism is another major topic of discussion at the summit, particularly trying to reduce repeated crime among people on probation, a topic not often discussed at such conferences.

Critics often point to the U.S. prison and jail population that tops 2 million, but it’s often overlooked that more than twice as many are on probation or parole.

Repeat crime among those released from prison is 40 percent or more in many states, depending on how it’s measured. The fact that more than 4.6 million people were on probation or parole as of 2015 means that even the lower repeat-crime rate among those convicts mean many more total “recidivism events” by probationers every year, said the Council of State Governments’ Andy Barbee.

Criminologist Edward Latessa of the University of Cincinnati told the conference that too many probation and parole officers act like “referees” whose main job is to determine whether probationers and parolees have violated rules and should be sent back to custody.

Instead, he argued, they should be trained more as “coaches” to take active steps that would prevent those on their caseloads from reoffending.

Bryan Collier, criminal justice director in Texas, and Kathy Waters, probation director for the Arizona Supreme Court, described how their states have used variations on that approach to reduce the totals of people whose probation and parole has been revoked in recent years. Such offenders have accounted for a large percentage of new prison admittees in many states.

The conference heard about a new “Face to Face” program sponsored by the Council of State Governments Justice Center in which public officials are encouraged to meet directly with convicts to hear about their challenges in getting job training or education behind bars.

Attendees were shown a video of Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds visiting prisons. The effort is a bipartisan one. Participants so far include Reynolds, a Republican, along with Republican governors of Georgia, Missouri, and Nevada, and Democratic governors in Colorado, Connecticut, Hawaii, Montana, and North Carolina.

One governor who has criminal justice reform high on the agenda is Republican Matt Bevin of Kentucky, a businessman who made a featured appearance at the summit on Monday.

Bevin has backed reforms including easier expungement of some criminal records by former inmates and “banning the box” to bar state officials from asking applicants about their criminal pasts.

He also has started pilot programs in seven adult and juvenile corrections facilities to improve job training for inmates, and is working to remove prohibitions on former convicts’ obtaining state licenses for many occupations.

Bevin took part in a recent White House meeting with Jared Kushner, President Trump’s son-in-law, to discuss potential justice reforms on the federal level.

The governor said he came away “very confident” that the White House will back reform measures, although he didn’t specify which ones.

Bevin said he was not confident that Congress would agree, although he praised several Republicans, including his state’s Sen. Rand Paul, for joining the reform movement.

After the summit, the U.S. Justice Department will offer “technical assistance” to as many as 25 states to pursue reform measures.

The Council of State Governments Justice Center will issue a report in January with its detailed state crime and justice findings.

The summit is being funded by DOJ’s Bureau of Justice Assistance, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, Pew Charitable Trusts, and the Tow Foundation.

Ted Gest is president of Criminal Justice Journalists and Washington Bureau Chief of The Crime Report. Readers’ comments are welcome.


Justice Reform Means ‘Thinking Outside Silos,’ Says New John Jay President

Many people trapped in the justice system today were victims themselves of trauma or addiction, says Karol Mason, who was appointed the fifth president of the country’s leading justice university this year. In an interview on the “Criminal Justice Matters” CUNY-TV program, she argued that innovative programs already underway demonstrate how social service providers, courts and police can successfully cooperate to reduce America’s justice-involved population.

Reform of the U.S. justice system requires “thinking outside the silos” that have separated courts, police and prisons from other institutions that can provide alternative pathways to help justice-involved people become productive, law-abiding citizens, says the new president of John Jay College.

Karol Mason, who left her post as a senior official in the Department of Justice (DOJ) to become head of the country’s preeminent educational institution for criminal justice in August, said educational training, family counseling, substance abuse treatment, job counseling, and other social services are critical tools for a “holistic” approach to criminal justice reform.

John Jay College

John Jay students and President Karol Mason. Photo courtesy John Jay College.

“Many of the people in our criminal justice system (now) were victims first,” she said in a Criminal Justice Matters  program aired on CUNY-TV, a public broadcasting channel for the metropolitan New York region, this week.

She noted that there was already a substantial body of research and evaluation showing the long-term value of programs focused at both the “front end” of the justice system and at helping those currently imprisoned to develop the skills for successful reintegration into society.

“Criminal justice is not something that operates in a silo,” she told program host Stephen Handelman, editor of The Crime Report. “The need for reform reflects back on other failures in other parts of the system.”

She gave as an example the current opiate crisis and the growing realization that criminalizing addicts is the wrong approach to a problem that has complicated roots.

“We shouldn’t be putting people in jail for addiction,” she said, adding that players in the criminal justice system in many jurisdictions around the country are already beginning to work with social service organizations in diversionary programs that focus on drug treatment, mental health, jobs, education and housing.

Karol Mason

Karol Mason, former head of the Office of Justice Programs, with (l-r) Valerie Jarrett, former White House Special Advisor, former President Barack Obama, and former Attorney-General Eric Holder. Photo courtesy Karol Mason.

“People are (already) thinking outside their silos,” said Mason, who was Assistant Attorney General in charge of the Office of Justice Programs during the administration of President Barack Obama.

“They are recognizing that the justice system is the last resort, the last response to other failures.”

Mason said that the “Smart on Crime-Innovations” conference held last month at John Jay, which brought together academics, practitioners and advocates from across the ideological spectrum,  demonstrated that the movement for change was strengthening around the country—especially at state and local levels.

“There’s power when you have people come together from different walks of life and different perspectives who all agree we need criminal justice reform,” she said.

Editor’s Note: Video reports of John Jay’s “Smart on Crime-Innovations” conference are available on YouTube here.

Mason said John Jay College, which opened in the 1960s as a branch of the publicly funded City University of New York to offer a liberal arts education to police officers and now boasts a student body of nearly 15,000, would continue to serve as a national resource for research and innovation under her leadership.

Citing programs such as the pioneering Prison-to-College  Pipeline,  which brings students and college faculty into prisons to prepare inmates about to be released for higher education, she said John Jay would remain in the forefront of exploring alternatives to traditional approaches to crime and punishment—focusing especially on helping keep individuals from becoming involved with the justice system in the first place.

“We’re a safe space for people to have tough conversations about justice issues.”

The entire “Criminal Justice Matters” program can be viewed here.  Readers’ comments are welcome.


Police Anti-Terror Training Gets a New Boost

The State and Local Anti-Terrorism Training Program (SLATT) will keep running and be retooled during the Trump administration despite an earlier announcement that it would end on September 30.

A U.S. Department of Justice program to train state and local police officers how to fight terrorism will continue indefinitely, despite an earlier announcement that it would shut down this past September.

The program is called the State and Local Anti-Terrorism Training Program, or SLATT, and its declared mission is to provide “critical training and resources to our nation’s law enforcement, who face the challenges presented by the terrorist/violent criminal extremist threat.”

In July, The Crime Report said that the popular program was due to end on September 30. Congress had failed for three years to provide funds for it, but the Obama Justice Department had found money to keep it alive.

The Trump administration didn’t request funding for SLATT, even though President Trump and Attorney General Jeff Sessions have been strong supporters of law enforcement and have spoken out forcefully against terrorism.

Now it turns out that the DOJ Bureau of Justice Assistance, which has overseen SLATT since it was launched back in 1996, is determined to keep it operating, with Trump administration backing.

By Washington, D.C., standards, SLATT is a small program, commanding only about $1 million a year. Justice Department officials say they are able to find funds for it in a fairly large pot of money called the Edward Byrne Memorial Justice Assistance Grant Program, usually known by its key initials JAG.

Over the years, SLATT has spent more than $45 million training more than 146,700 law enforcement professionals. It also has funded a “Train-the-Trainer Workshop” that has taught about 3,500 law enforcement trainers, who in turn have provided instruction to about 270,000 more law enforcement officers.

The job of running SLATT has been contracted to the Institute for Intergovernmental Research (IRR), a Tallahassee, Florida-based firm headed by Rick Gregory, a former police chief in Utah and Delaware.

Because of the funding uncertainties, SLATT will be offered on a curtailed basis during what DOJ is calling the current “bridge year” until it it resumes at full strength next October.

In the past, local police officers have been offered a two-and-one-half day training session covering such topics as terrorism ideologies, dealing with domestic terrorists including “sovereign citizens” and anarchists, international terrorism, and intelligence and information sharing among law enforcement agencies.

For the next few months, SLATT will be taught to local police in a shortened one-day form.

Probably by early next year, the Justice Department will post a notice offering any training provider the chance to bid on the opportunity to run SLATT.

DOJ will seek a revised curriculum that will make more use of FBI training materials than the current course does.

The International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP), the nation’s largest group of police managers, is enthusiastic about SLATT’s continuation. IACP says that although large police departments like New York City and Los Angeles have the capacity to train their own officers about terrorism, there are about 18,000 law enforcement agencies around the U.S., most of which have two dozen employees or fewer and cannot provide such specialized training.

If SLATT is so popular and fighting terrorism is such a major federal cause, why is there so little formal support for it in the capital?

The Trump administration has been in office less than a year, and hasn’t gotten around to naming a director for the Bureau of Justice Assistance, and many other federal agencies.

As for Congress, it has managed to keep the federal government going only by means of a “continuing resolution” that expires on December 8.

Money for the Justice Department is combined in a fund that includes the Commerce Department and science agencies like NASA.

The Senate and House committees that deal with those units have about $54 billion to spend this year, meaning that it is easy for a program like SLATT to get lost in the shuffle.

Those interested in following SLATT’s progress in the future can check its website.

Ted Gest is president of Criminal Justice Journalists and Washington Bureau chief of The Crime Report. Comments welcome.


Cracking the Stonewall on a Nun’s Murder: A Reporter’s Story

The Emmy-nominated Netflix true crime documentary, “The Keepers,” helped break open a 47-year-old story of sexual abuse and murder at a Baltimore Catholic school. But it took stubborn shoe-leather investigative reporting to penetrate official indifference and the refusal to pursue evidence of police misconduct.

It was the kind of moment that an investigative reporter never forgets.

Harsh accusations were told to WJZ by many of [Father] Maskell’s victims. We have spoken with two of these women, and now a third is coming forward with a real bombshell. She told WJZ she was abused not only by Father Maskell, but also by police officers. . . .

It happened last February 27, when Baltimore’s CBS outlet, WJZ-TV, reported that local police were investigating credible reports of cops raping teenagers at a Catholic high school for girls in the city, back in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

cold case

Sister Catherine Ann Cesnik. Photo courtesy Baltimore County Police

But the shocking TV news report also marked a huge turning point in this investigative reporter’s 22-year effort to uncover the truth about the murder of a teaching nun, Sister Catherine Ann Cesnik, who had reportedly tried to blow the whistle on widespread sexual abuse of students at her high school in southwest Baltimore.

The February 27 news story was an unexpected development, for sure.

For the first time ever, a major television station in Baltimore was talking openly—live and on the air—about the possibility that the nun’s murder had been covered up by police officials for more than four decades because an open investigation might reveal that “several” local policemen had been engaged in the sexual abuse, along with several law-breaking Roman Catholic priests.

Until then, the story of the 22-year struggle to uncover and report the abuse—along with an alleged Church and police cover-up—had been a depressing chronicle of stonewalling, frustration and official indifference.

But then came the remarkable evening last winter when the dam finally broke and the allegations of police misconduct suddenly flooded onto airwaves and front pages all across the Baltimore-Washington region.

The reporting struggle had not been an easy one. Again and again, as a series of mostly local reporters dug at frightening allegations of rape by priests and cops, they were stymied by Baltimore-area “cold case” investigators and special agents at the FBI—all of whom repeatedly refused to discuss details about the unsolved killing of the nun or the abuse that had reportedly triggered it.


Father A. Joseph Maskell (left) was defrocked by the Archdiocese of Baltimore (AOB) after numerous allegations of sexual abuse, and after the AOB confirmed that “guns were found” at his last church rectory in Maryland. His friend Father Neil Magnus (now deceased) was also accused of rape by students at a Catholic girls’ high school in Baltimore, where he served as Director of Religious Studies. Photo courtesy of Netflix.


This reporter, for example, was told several times over the years by cold-case investigators at the Baltimore County Police Department and the FBI that the nun had undoubtedly been killed by a “random assailant” who abducted her during a Nov. 7, 1969, shopping trip, then raped and murdered her.

When I then uncovered significant evidence linking the murder of the nun to the school abuse, both the police and the FBI refused to examine it. Instead, they made clear that they had no interest in studying any scenarios other than the “random assailant” scenario they had long ago decided was the correct explanation that lay behind the nun’s murder.

James Scannell

Baltimore Police Captain James L. Scannell (now deceased) was a close friend of Father Maskell and often drove the priest on “ride-alongs” in his squad car. Some female high school students said they were sexually assaulted by priests and cops during such ride-alongs. Photo courtesy of Netflix.


It took more than a decade of reporting and writing stories about the nun’s murder before the shocking new information about sexual abuse by priests and police, and possible links connecting it to the killing, finally began to gain momentum.

Indeed, Baltimore-area law enforcement officials now say they believe that six different unsolved killings may in fact be connected to the abuse.

Tom Nugent

Tom Nugent

The struggle to tell the story of the nun’s murder and the ensuing alleged cover-up began in 1994, in Baltimore, when I and several others interviewed the first abuse victim. During the ensuing years, I continued to interview both abuse victims (more than a dozen have by now received “apologies” and more than $500,000 in “settlement” compensation from Church officials) and those law enforcement officials who were willing to talk with me.

I spent hundreds of hours burning shoe leather in Baltimore, while interviewing dozens of former students at the Catholic high school—along with several police detectives and FBI agents who had worked on earlier investigations of the nun’s killing. I slowly developed several high-ranking sources in Baltimore law enforcement.

As I gained their trust over more than a decade of scrupulously careful reporting, they began to provide more and more revealing details about the abuse, the murder, and an alleged police cover-up of both.

I also went to Pittsburgh and interviewed family members and friends of the murdered nun, in order to tell that side of the story in specific, compelling detail.

Again and again, I tried to interest newspapers (including my former employer, the Baltimore Sun, and the nearby Washington Post) in letting me cover the story for them. For several years, they refused to run the copy I sent them, while insisting that the facts I’d uncovered weren’t sufficient to back up allegations of police involvement in sexual abuse—along with alleged police and church cover-ups of murder.

But then I got a break.

In early 2005, I finally managed to persuade the City Paper, an independent newspaper in Baltimore to run a massive, 5,000-word story about the nun’s killing and the ensuing investigations.

That story drew some important help from some media-savvy abuse-research volunteers, one of whom eventually succeeded in attracting the attention of the Huffington Post.

Photo courtesy Netflix

The lengthy 2015 HuffPo piece helped to set the stage for this year’s Emmy-nominated true crime documentary, The Keepers, which brought international attention and millions of viewers to the tragic story of Sister Cathy and the allegations of sexual abuse and alleged cover-up by Baltimore-area police and the FBI.

By the time The Keepers premiered in May of this year, the local news media—including print, television and magazines (such as Baltimore Magazine, which ran a lengthy investigative story on the nun’s murder)—were already reporting the story in shocking detail.

If there is a lesson for investigative reporters in all of this, it now seems clear.

Learn how to tell your story in a variety of formats (print, television, magazines and documentary film and video) so that you can reach a variety of audiences and thus maximize the story’s impact.

The bottom line: once the powers-that-be in Baltimore realized that the story of the murdered nun, the sexual abuse and the allegations of police cover-up was going to be the subject of a blockbuster, seven-part documentary on Netflix, the bureaucratic stonewalling gave way to increasing disclosures of revealing fact by law enforcement officials in Maryland.

Of course, the story isn’t over yet.

With local law enforcement in Maryland now talking openly about “new findings that may link six different unsolved murders to two priests who were involved in the abuse during the late 1960s and much of the 1970s,” there may very well be additional surprises ahead.

The effort to uncover the facts will continue.

Hopefully, the worldwide interest provoked by The Keepers will also continue to help journalists overcome the kind of stonewalling that so often takes place when law enforcement officials refuse to share information with the public—for motives that often seem dubious and self-serving.

Tom Nugent is the author of Death at Buffalo Creek (W.W. Norton), a book of investigative journalism about a coal mining-related disaster that killed 125 people and left thousands homeless in Appalachia. He is also the publisher of an online newspaper, Inside Baltimore. Tom welcomes comments from readers.


The End of Policing? 

The drive to diversify police forces and the renewed interest in community policing are transforming law enforcement across the country. But a provocative new book by a Brooklyn College sociology professor argues that these efforts don’t address the underlying problems. He explains why in a conversation with TCR.

Policing in the United States is in the midst of transformative changes, partly spurred by the well-publicized officer-involved shootings around the country—but also as a consequence of generational change, as police ranks open up to a more diversified group of recruits and as departments modernize their training. But Alex Vitale, a professor of sociology and coordinator of the Policing and Social Justice Project at Brooklyn College, argues that little will happen unless police agencies rethink their roles in public safety.

In The End of Policing, Vitale offers a different framework for thinking about how law enforcement relates to the communities it serves. In a chat with TCR’s Isidoro Rodriguez, he explains why the current policing model perpetuates racial bias, why he believes community policing is misconceived, and what he means by the provocative title he chose for his book,


Alex S. Vitale

The Crime Report: The title of your book will attract a lot of attention. But do you really think that policing needs to end? 

 Alex Vitale: The title has a kind of double meaning. On the one hand, it means should we look at a complete rethinking of policing. But, also, within that, what is the purpose of policing? What is it that we have asked police to do functionally?

The book is really about trying to lay out a process of interrogating our over-reliance on policing, and using evidence-informed alternatives to try and reduce that reliance. And behind that is the understanding that policing is inherently a problematic tool for cities to use to solve problems because it comes with a legacy of reproducing inequality, especially along the lines of race. Also, it relies on the tools of coercion, force, and punitiveness to solve problems; and that brings with it a lot of potential collateral consequences that we should be looking to avoid whenever possible.

TCR: The punitive aspect of policing is a key issue today. Departments across the country continue to face controversy as a result of their officers’ often aggressive methods. As a result, many have implemented programs such as Crisis Intervention Training and placed new emphasis on de-escalation and conflict resolution. Are these the right ways to go?

AV: First of all, a lot of departments aren’t making meaningful changes. They’re not actively embracing significant new training regimes. My view is that, ultimately, training police to better do things that they shouldn’t be doing in the first place is not the ultimate solution. If we could really dial back the things we ask police to do, then we could talk about what kind of training and protocols would be best for doing what’s left. Police is the unit of government that we rely on to be able to use force.

It’s a mistake to think that, somehow, we can just train police to be nice and friendly all the time. Rather than creating this idea that we can make the police nicer, we should really just reduce the number of things we ask them to do.

TCR: One of the main areas where police are taking on more responsibilities than many feel they should is policing the mentally ill. Should we take the responsibility for this population off the shoulders of police who often aren’t even trained to deal with them?

AV: Absolutely. Instead of trying to fine-tune the police response, we need to just end the police response to most of these calls. And we can just look at the United Kingdom as an example of how to move in that direction. There, when someone in a family is having a mental health crisis and a family member calls for help, they call a phone number that’s tied to the national health service. It has nothing to do with the police. A trained mental health nurse practitioner, or other trained mental health worker, responds to that call.

Now, if there is a concern, or an articulation of violence, than it may be necessary for some police backup. But that call is handled as a health crisis call. The UK police don’t want to take those calls, are happy to have mental health professionals doing that work, and are angry that mental health services in the UK are being dialed back and more of the burden is falling on them. And, frankly, there are a lot of cops in the United States who think it’s a mistake to send police on those calls. They don’t want to do them;, they don’t believe that what they’re doing helps; and it’s incredibly fraught.

TCR: Why is there such reticence on the part of American police forces to adopt international examples of successful alternative policing methods like those practiced in the UK?

AV: Because it has nothing to do with the police. This is not their decision to make. This is a decision that’s been made by political leaders not to fund adequate community based mental health services due to a bipartisan consensus around the politics of austerity.

TCR: In the debate on how best to deal with the mentally ill, there’s a strong push for diversion methods such as mental health courts. Do you see that as a successful step of reform?

AV: The courts are not always that successful in diverting people. Whether it’s mental health courts, trafficking courts, or drug courts, they rarely provide the services that are often most needed in these situations: stable supportive housing and access to a stable income, whether it’s through employment or government transfers.

End of PolicingThey engage in a lot of therapeutic regimes, which may provide some aid in helping people stabilize, but don’t totally do so in a way that avoids future interactions with these systems.

Instead, we see a lot of churning of people through these courts, through therapeutic regimes and, also, through emergency rooms, police lockups, and jails—often at the cost of hundreds of thousands of dollars a year per person. I think what we should be looking at is not pre-incarceration diversion, but pre-arrest diversion. Instead of limiting access to drug treatment to people that get arrested, why not have drug treatment on demand for anyone who needs it? Why not have actual adequate community based mental health services?

Then, if we have those services in place, and there are people who are still producing problems in the community, let’s talk about how to address those individuals from a comprehensive standpoint. Instead, we make no services available, and then we criminalize people for engaging in antisocial behavior.

TCR: Another issue your book addresses is the militarization of the police, both in tactics and the supply of military-grade hardware, a reality memorialized by the protests in Ferguson. Please explain your perspective.

 AV: Political violence is a political problem, and it needs to be solved in the political arena. But, too often, rather than addressing those political concerns, our political leaders hand it off to the police to deal with. That leaves, again, police in a no-win situation where they feel the need to use force to resolve what are ultimately political problems. The other thing is that militarization of policing is about a lot more than humvees and tactical vests. It’s about a whole ethos that has become widespread in policing in the United States. About politicians telling police to wage a war on crime, a war on drugs, a war on terror, and a war on disorder and then giving them budgets to buy military equipment and create paramilitary units with training regimes that treat the public as enemies to be neutralized.

We have seen that ethos at work in some of the most horrible abuses of policing. So what is to be done? Quit telling the police they’re at war with the public, scale down the kinds of thing that they’re being asked to deal with, and then think about what kinds of tools, training, and technologies are best for accomplishing that. In my mind, that would result in a vast reduction in the use of militarized equipment and training.

TCR: In your book, you point out that poor and minority populations almost exclusively shoulder the burden of overpolicing. Why?

 AV: We persist in a fantasy of color blindness that says the police response is merely a professional technocratic response to where the crime is, but ignore the ways in which our society has been structured along racialized lines and the ways in which poverty in the United States is growing and becoming more entrenched. This includes a lot of white rural communities that are suffering from opioids and other kinds of crime problems.

Our political leaders have chosen to define those communities as criminal rather than as communities that are in deep distress because of entrenched joblessness, discrimination, geographic isolation, etc. If they were to admit that the problems in those communities were the result of market failures, rather than individual moral failures, then they would have to intervene in markets in ways that those who put them in office don’t want them to. To address the problems of inequality in any way other than policing is politically unacceptable in our current political environment.

TCR: As you write in your book, today’s policing issues have deep historical roots—in some cases as far back as the 17th century. Does this history hold any lessons for policing today?

AV: Our popular culture, which is the main source of information that people have on policing, is suffused with the myth of police as neutral, professional crime fighters. In the book, I discuss things like Adam 12, which was created in the wake of the Watts riots, as a tool that the Los Angeles Police Department was actively using to restore public confidence in police along really invented lines. That has become the way police are portrayed primarily in our popular culture. What we don’t see, are the concrete ways in which the police reproduce enforced ghetto segregation, Jim Crow, and carry out the war on drugs and terror along racial lines.

TCR: In your book you describe the “hero narrative” that dominates police thinking about their role. Does that need to be addressed at the start of police training?

 AV: Most young people that I know, who have wanted to go into law enforcement, are motivated by a very real and genuine desire to help their communities. They believe that policing is the way to do this. What they don’t understand is the profound legacy of the structural impediments to using policing to truly solve community problems. So, police officers are often very frustrated in their jobs, because what they thought was going to be both exciting and helpful is bureaucratic and pointless. If you read memoirs from police officers, you often get “we spent years arresting people for drugs, and yet everyone in the community could get drugs any time they wanted them.” It’s the utter pointlessness of the enforcement.

TCR: The motivation to help the community is behind many police departments’ renewed drive for adapting community policing methods as a means of creating safer and more effective policing practices. Is this a step in the right direction?

AV: No. I think that community policing merely expands our reliance on police to deal with social problems that would be better handled in other ways. As long as the police are asked to wage simultaneous wars on drugs, terror, disorder, and crime, they cannot do this in a friendly and respectful way. And what the police consider to be the community excludes large portions of these neighborhoods and consigns them to being the enemy.

TCR: So much of your book emphasizes taking money out of criminal justice and putting it into viable progressive social programs. In your opinion, on a party level, is there any push for this kind of monetary change on either side of the fence?

Isidoro Rodriguez

AV: No. My hope is that the theatrical excesses of the Trump administration will create more political space to talk about the kinds of reforms and shifts in social spending that will actually make a difference. But I don’t see too much of that in the works among existing big city politicians. New York City Council members have written me letters, some elected officials came to my book launch in New York, but we have yet to see a true political tendency.

Of course, there are community- based organizations all across the country making these same points. What we need to do is bring together those groups, critical academic researchers, and progressive political leaders, and turn this into a real political movement.

 Isidoro Rodriguez is a staff writer for The Crime Report. He welcomes readers’ comments.


Fix Your ‘Failing’ Public Defense System, ACLU Tells Nevada

A class-action lawsuit charging Nevada with violating its constitutional responsibility to ensure all citizens receive equal treatment before the law is aimed at pushing the state to fix its “utterly failing” public defense system, according to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). It’s the eighth such suit launched by the ACLU against states and counties.

A class-action lawsuit charging Nevada with violating its constitutional responsibility to ensure all citizens receive equal treatment before the law is aimed at pushing the state to fix its “utterly failing” public defense system, according to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU).

In the suit filed Thursday, the ACLU and its state branch argued that in 11 of Nevada’s 16 counties, the right to legal help for indigent defendants established by the 1963 Supreme Court’s Gideon v. Wainwright ruling has not been fulfilled.

The suit is intended to remind state authorities that the constitutional “right to a defense exists for all Nevadans and is not a privilege reserved for the privileged,” said Emma Andersson, staff attorney for the ACLU’s Criminal Law Reform Project.

“Once upon a time, Nevada was a pioneering force ensuring that the right to counsel didn’t depend on the size of your wallet,” Andersson told The Crime Report.

“It’s disheartening that the state has fallen so far off course and failed to fix the problem, despite being on notice for the last decade that the system is utterly failing.”

The suit argues that insufficient resources and lack of oversight by the state have caused these rural counties to use contract attorneys in place of a functional public defense system.

“The right to counsel is the lifeblood of the criminal justice system,” the complaint declared, noting that the Supreme Court’s ruling established that indigent defendants are covered under Sixth Amendment guarantees of due process, including the right to legal counsel.

“The principles of equal justice and due process rest on fulfillment of this (Constitutional) duty,” the ACLU added. “Yet the public defense system in Nevada’s rural counties is plagued with serious systemic deficiencies that the state and the governor (have long known about and persistently failed to remedy.”

In Nevada, contract attorneys are paid through a system of de facto flat fees, where they receive the same amount of money regardless of the effort and time invested. As a result, the suit says, they tend to neglect cases they receive from the county—oftentimes ignoring these clients for months, pressuring them into pleading guilty to charges they have not investigated, or failing to advocate effectively for clients at sentencing.

Moreover, according to the suit, many contract attorneys in Nevada are not required to have training, experience, or education relevant to criminal defense. In many cases, these attorneys have private clients whose cases compete for their time and effort against the far less profitable and underfunded public defense cases.

The result, according to the ACLU’s Andersson, is a system of unequal justice that depends on how much money a defendant has.

“Imagine you’re in jail pre-trial for over a year while your lawyer does no investigation of your case, files no motions on your behalf, doesn’t keep you informed about what’s happening, and then convinces you to plead guilty because he doesn’t have time to take your case to trial,” Andersson said in an emailed response to questions from The Crime Report.

“Then you spend another year sitting in jail while your case is on appeal, your lawyer does an amazing job, and you ultimately win. Would that feel like a functional system to you in which your Sixth Amendment rights were upheld?

“The constitutional right to counsel begins long before an appeal, and long before a trial or a plea.”

The suit notes that Nevada was once a leader in the national drive to establish an equal right to counsel regardless of a defendant’s ability to pay. In In re Wixom (1877), the Nevada Supreme Court ruled that “the failure to appoint counsel to the poor in a criminal case was a valid reason to overturn convictions on direct appeal.”

It was not until 86 years later that the U.S. Supreme Court affirmed this in Gideon v. Wainwright (1963).

The Nevada Supreme Court’s Indigent Defense Commission, established in 2007, commissioned a report titled “Reclaiming Justice,” which documenting the shortcomings of public defense in Nevada’s rural counties. The report was issued in 2013 by the Sixth Amendment Center.

Franny Forsman, who served as the federal public defender in Nevada for more than 20 years, is co-counsel in the suit.

This lawsuit will mark the ACLU’s eighth challenge to what it considers inadequate public defense systems in states and counties.

Nevada joins Fresno County, Ca; Grays Harbor County, Wash,; Luzerne County, Pa; Orleans Parish, La; Idaho; Missouri, and Utah.

The ACLU has also filed lawsuits claiming systematic Sixth Amendment violations by courts in Beaufort and Bluffton, S.C.; and Miami-Dade County, Fla.

See also: “Fulfilling Gideon’s Promise of Justice”

Brian Edsall is a news intern with The Crime Report. Readers’ comments are welcome.


Redemption at the Gym: A Muscular Approach to Prisoner Reentry

A New York City nonprofit launched by an entrepreneur who spent time behind bars is teaching the formerly incarcerated to become personal trainers—and at the same time puncturing stereotypes that have limited employment opportunities for the millions of Americans with criminal records.

When you walk into the weightlifting room of the CompleteBody gym in the buzzy Chelsea neighborhood in downtown New York City, it feels at first like any other fitness center.

The room vibrates with the thump of barbells and the voices of trainers urging “just one more rep.” The walls are covered with photos of former clients like actor Dwayne Johnson, better known as “The Rock.”

The clients focusing intensely on their workouts—and the trainers urging them on—also look like people you might encounter at any gym. But the usual crowd of office workers also includes a special group of people who until recently were confined behind prison walls.

For the past two years, the CompleteBody gym has been host to a program that trains formerly incarcerated individuals for careers as personal trainers.

“It’s about providing a second chance,” said Hector Guadalupe, who came up with the idea after he was released from prison.

Some 70 individuals have gone through the program, called “A Second U,” since it moved to the gym facility. Successful graduates of the six-week-long course have landed jobs at major sports facilities and health clubs around Manhattan.

Although national attention is increasingly focused on the importance of stable employment and career counseling for the formerly incarcerated, opportunities are still limited because of the stigma associated with time in prison.

And they are further constricted by the legal and social barriers preventing employment of former inmates in many occupations.

A Second U is among the innovative programs that are proving why many of those barriers need to be re-examined.

According to Guadalupe, “returning citizens” (his preferred phrase) deserve a chance to show how they have moved beyond the behavior and attitudes that first landed them in the criminal justice system.”

“93 percent of our graduates have maintained consistent employment,” he said during a recent tour of the facility.

The non-profit group not only recruits, educates and trains participants—both men and women—but helps them with job placement. The program goes beyond physical conditioning training to provide students with tutorials in client relations, managing bookings, and what Guadalupe describes as “mindset training.”

Changing a returning citizen’s “mindset,” says Guadalupe, plays an important role in landing— and keeping—a job. He and his team concentrate as much on developing the social skills of living outside institutional facilities as on the most effective fitness exercises.

Those skills are central to many re-entry programs now underway around the country.

“They teach you what’s appropriate and what’s not.” said Toney Earl, Jr., Founder and Executive Director of M.A.D.E. Transitional Services, a re-entry agency based in Rockland County, NY.

“Someone may give you a shot, but if you blow that by making people uncomfortable, you’re wasting your time.”

A Second U gives its participants training in everything from appropriate dress codes and communications to the importance of being on time.

“These are obvious skills people need in every industry” said Guadalupe, “and we want to make sure our trainers are held to the highest standards.”

Guadalupe’s journey from prisoner to nonprofit entrepreneur came about in part from his own interest in fitness. Convicted at 23 for selling drugs, he served 10 years at the federal prison in Fort Dix, NJ.

When he entered prison, he weighed 280 pounds. After a friend casually remarked that he looked like a “glazed honeybun,” Guadalupe got what amounted to a wakeup call.

He began working out in the facility, and he soon not only lost weight but gained self-confidence. At the same time, he discovered a talent for training others. By the time he was released, he was running the weight room in the prison gym.

That helped him find a job after release at a health club in the Union Square area of Manhattan, and eventually propelled him into his own personal training business. But he also realized he had valuable skills that he could offer to those like him.

Along with a group of friends, all “returning citizens,” he put together the nonprofit “A Second U” with money pooled from their earnings as personal trainers.

Guadalupe soon had more participants interested in personal fitness careers than he could handle on his own.

“At first, I didn’t have much of a life,” he recalled. “But the vision meant everything to me.”

As his clientele increased, he moved to the CompleteBody gym, which caters to independent trainers.

To recruit both trainers and participants, he began visiting halfway houses, federal probation offices, and job fairs for the formerly incarcerated to recruit trainers—and the opportunity offered at A Second U began spreading through word of mouth.

See also: Former Incarcerees Find Hope—and Employers—at NYC ‘Second Chance’ Job Fair

Two-Step Screening

Recruits go through a two-step screening process to enter the program. The first interview is with Guadalupe and the second is with the entire team.

“We don’t want to put energy into people that aren’t coachable and don’t want to learn the system,” explained Rohan Hales, director of recruitment, adding the program often turns people away.

“If they don’t have the desire to really change or do something, then it’s a waste of his time and our time,” he said. “There are people who don’t want to be helped, regardless of whatever you offer them.”

If the individual is not right for the fitness industry, A Second U will refer them to other transitional programs.

A program similar to A Second U has been operating in Boston since 2010.

InnerCity Weightlifting (ICW) trains formerly incarcerated youth identified as “high impact” (whom its website defines as “most likely to shoot or get shot at”) to become certified personal trainers.

According to the ICW website, 173 students have been through the program since it launched, and 56 students are currently in stage two or beyond of a four-stage process that covers “earning trust, building hope, social inclusion, and economic mobility.”

But the challenges facing graduates of ICW, A Second U, and other programs training the formerly incarcerated remain formidable.

One Boston-area firm would not let formerly incarcerated trainers from ICW work with their staff due to the high cost of insurance liability.

That, says Marilyn Oberhardt, a client at ICW, is “absurd.”

She points out that ICW carried its own insurance policy.

In an interview with The Crime Report, Oberhardt reflected on her relationship with the trainers.

“They are giving me incredible athletic support, and teaching me how to get the most out of my body, and I can help them with basic life stuff. That is the power of the relationship.”

Oberhardt noted that her formerly incarcerated trainers had missed out on life skills that she had taken for granted—such as shopping for a mattress.

She encouraged her son, a high school student, to get involved at the gym as well.

Is Transparency Important?

Another challenge is how transparent to be about trainers’ pasts.

In an interview with The Crime Report, Josh Feinman, director of Development & Communications at ICW, says potential clients are told in a brief call about the background of their employees before joining the gym.

“A good part of that call is spent explaining our mission, the nature of our work as a nonprofit, to make sure everyone in our community is on the same page,” he said. “I believe in being upfront, instead of bringing together these two worlds blindly.”

Nevertheless, experts on re-entry differ on the extent to which a previous criminal record should be part of the discussion between prospective employers and employees.

“It’s controversial because some people might say ‘that’s in the past’ and shouldn’t be mentioned,” said Kimora, a criminologist at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, who refers to herself by a single name.

“But in a personal training situation, it’s a very close, personal relationship. Women in particular might feel violated if they didn’t know.”

“If a client goes to someone and they find out later the person has a felony record, they might get scared and wonder why they weren’t told.”

Baz Dreisinger, founder of John Jay’s Prison-to-College Pipeline program, disagrees.

“It’s not relevant to the job at hand,” said Dreisinger, author of Incarceration Nations: A Journey to Justice in Prisons Around the World . “I don’t think they have to know that kind of personal information.”

“Training someone is not about being their best friend; there’s a professional boundary.”

Former A Second U graduate Craig Sweat says he believes clients “could care less about my previous incarceration.”

“All my clients want to do is train and lose weight,” he said. “Unless someone asks you, it’s not something you bring up as topic of conversation.”

Programs like A Second U and ICW occupy a special niche in programs aimed at reducing recidivism rates.

Although many barriers to employing the formerly incarcerated—such as boxes on employment applications that require applicants to list any former convictions—are dropping, there is still sensitivity about employing ex-prisoners in occupations that involve one-on-one personal contact.

Ironically, fitness and body conditioning are among the skills that can be easily transferred between prison and the outside world. With little else to occupy their time, many inmates find a safe place at the prison gym.

Weights at the CompleteBody gym. Photo by Megan Hadley

Craig Sweat says his behind-bars background was an attractive plus for some of his clients.

“Our training styles are way different than guys who haven’t been formerly incarcerated,” he said. “We understand the concept of the mechanics of how the body moves. So having that experience alone, and the different styles of training, makes it a little easier for me to get clients.”

That doesn’t remove the need to develop in-prison education and job programs that can help a prisoner learn the skills and self-confidence to adjust to life on the outside, according to Steve Lathrop, a former Nebraska state senator, who served as chairman of the special corrections committee in the Nebraska legislature.

“They are more likely to stay out of trouble and not re-offend, than people who are released with no programming and no new skills,” Lathrop said in an interview.

Still, the highest barrier of all may be the stereotyped thinking that prevents prisoners from getting jobs once they are released.

Toney Earl, Jr. of M.A.D.E. Transitions says popular media help perpetuate stereotypes like “once a criminal always a criminal,” and “the limited thinking that a person is unlikely to change.”

“If you don’t have any encounters with someone formerly incarcerated, your perception is limited to your own personal experiences,” said Earl.

Earl, who is formerly incarcerated, said when he speaks to groups, he is always viewed as the exception, not the rule.

“They can’t envision me being in prison because of the way I present myself,” he said. “If I had some tattoos and do-rag they would’ve had an easier time coming to that conclusion.”

According to Earl, businesses lose the chance to benefit from the energy, resourcefulness and perspectives of a large group of Americans when they discriminate against the formerly incarcerated.

“From a legal perspective, if the nature of the crime has nothing to do with the position the individual is applying for, that should not be a determining factor whether they are or are not eligible for an opportunity with your company,” he said.

However, by definition, personal training adds a special complication to the employer-employee relationship.

“We have had responses in the past like ‘why would I want to train with someone convicted of a crime?’ ” said Josh Feinman, director of Development & Communications at ICW.

“(But) if you can change people’s viewpoints, they often become our most passionate advocates.”

“We haven’t had one person leave the gym because of the work we do,” he said.

“We actually have people who otherwise would not engage in a for-profit fitness service staying with us for long periods of time because they are so passionate about the mission.”

Data collected by InnerCity Weightlifting suggests that personal training offers a successful path to resuming normal lives for individuals who have been imprisoned.

Some 78 percent of students who completed ICW’s full program avoided re-incarceration, according to the organization’s figures.

Hector Guadalupe concedes that some barriers to certification as a personal trainer will always be hard to overcome.

“In this industry, it would be hard for a sex offender to get past the national credited certification companies because it’s 70 percent-dominated by women,” he said.

Programs like A Second U and ICW represent a major step forward in exploding misleading perceptions about the formerly incarcerated, but there is still a long way to go, according to John Jay’s Kimora.

“This country is not where it needs to be when it comes to understanding and having compassion towards people who have been formerly incarcerated,” she said.

Megan Hadley is a news intern with The Crime Report. She welcomes comments from readers.