Social Work Students Respond to the #BlackLivesMatter Movement and the Neutrality of Social Work Program Administrators

UC Berkeley Social Welfare graduate students stand in solidarity with the #BlackLivesMatter movement, and we are speaking out against nationwide police brutality and systemic violence against the Black community. As students and as social workers, we feel a responsibility and an obligation to issue a statement in support of the community action and the demands issued by the #BlackLivesMatter movement.

Our criminal justice system continues to fail the Black community. It is intolerable that the lives of Oscar Grant, Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, Akai Gurley, McKenzie Cochran, Kimani Gray, and countless other Black men and women were taken by individuals who took an oath to protect and serve them.

tumblr_mz6ujyfZXV1qm0yhvo1_500The criminalization of and violence against Black men and women speaks to larger systems of racism and oppression that we, as social workers, are ethically bound to interrupt. Students questioned the school’s response after the UC Berkeley School of Social Welfare administration had not formally issued a statement.

The silence has been deafening, and it has been particularly felt by the Black community throughout the institution. This lack of support on campus for students of color is disgraceful, and completely unacceptable, especially for an institution such as Berkeley that prides itself on diversity, inclusion, and a history of activism.

We join our social work colleagues from Columbia University, Portland State University, Washington University, Smith College, and numerous other schools and organizations that have made public statements to call for community members to demand social reform. As students at UC Berkeley’s School of Social Welfare, we too will use our voices to break the silence that pervades our academic community and act on the principles of social justice that we have been discussing in our classroom.

We are in solidarity and thankful to participate in the actions and healing spaces that Berkeley students and community members have organized: The Black Student Union action on December 4th, the walkout organized by the Black Student Union at Berkeley HS on December 10th, the organizing efforts that brought the Millions March Rally from Berkeley to Downtown Oakland on December 13th, and the December 15th  “Not On Our Watch” silent protest organized by the Black Staff and Faculty Organization (BSFO), a response to the effigies which were hung in Sproul plaza. Our goal is to uphold the #BlackLivesMatter movement’s focus on disrupting white supremacy, and we must acknowledge how Black people are mistreated in the United States, including on the UC Berkeley campus.

We invite the Berkeley Social Welfare administration as well as other Schools of Social Work to discuss how our programs can better model social work praxis and include the #SSWBlackLivesMatter organizing movement in their plans for Spring 2015. We will continue to mobilize, and we are prepared to take action on our campus and within our community – because at the end of the day, #BlackLivesMatter.

Media Contact

Ariana Allensworth |

UC Berkeley MSW Graduate Student Body

Are Social Workers Helping Inmates Rot in Solitary Confinement?

As I wrote in a article several weeks ago, there are about 25,000 people held in solitary confinement in supermax prison units called SHUs—security housing units—and another 80,000 inmates housed in isolation cells in regular prisons and jails. Many of these individuals are mentally ill. Some are juveniles and/or pretrial detainees. No question they are being subjected to cruel and unusual punishment regardless what different courts may decide.

solitaryThe purpose of solitary confinement—if it should be used at all—is to segregate the most dangerous criminals. But even dangerous criminals should not be isolated for extended periods and never indefinitely. Social workers and other mental health practitioners are assigned to these units to provide care for the inmates. Often they wind up feeding them medication and sleeping pills so they will not totally lose their minds. In a warped sense, they are helping them rot in their cells.

This ethical nightmare was brought to my attention recently by Moya Atkinson, a dynamic social worker who is very passionate about this issue. Nearing 80 years old, you would think she would leave this fight to younger advocates. She has organized a task force of social workers committed to significantly restricting the use of solitary confinement and eliminating its use for vulnerable populations such as the mentally ill, juveniles, pregnant women, people with disabilities and pretrial detainees.

After she read my article, we met to discuss the issue and I agreed to join the task force. While my focus was on the cruel and unusual punishment individuals incur because of extended, indefinite and indiscriminate use of solitary confinement, she was equally concerned about ethical dilemmas faced by social workers and other mental health professionals charged with providing care for individuals in solitary confinement.

Ethical dilemmas are familiar to social workers who often find themselves in environments and situations that challenge their code of ethics. But working in solitary confinement is a level of horror that few encounter. Social work in correctional facilities which falls under the umbrella of forensic social work is ripe with these challenges.

What should social workers do when they believe mentally ill inmates are being mistreated in jails or prisons? Who does she or he complain to? Often locked in an environment with violent individuals who are both inmates and guards, how do social workers look out for their personal safety concerns while seeking just treatment for inmates? These are tough questions with no easy answers that the task force will wrestle with.

Task force member Mary E. Buser, whose op-ed piece in the Washington Post about her work with mentally ill inmates in solitary confinement at New York City’s Rikers Island jail provided the impetus that spurred Moya into organizing the task force, wrote about “doling out antidepressants, antipsychotics, and mountains of sleeping pills,” in an effort to keep the psyches of people in solitary from unraveling.

Her job was to determine if those in solitary confinement might reach the point where they would kill themselves. How do you do that as a social worker or mental health practitioner? Her brief time as acting chief of mental health took her into the segregation unit on Rikers Island known as the Bing. It was an experience she will never forget. Yet, social workers must provide services to people in solitary confinement unless the practice is discontinued.

National social work organizations are involved in this effort. Task force member Mel Wilson, manager of the Department of Social Justice and Human Rights for the National Association of Social Workers (NASW) has been active on this issue for years. He provided testimony during a hearing of the Senate Judiciary’s Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights, and Human Rights on the use of solitary confinement. Dr. Michel Coconis, chair of the Association for Community Organizing and Social Administration (ACOSA) and a long-time activist against the death penalty, also joined the task force which held its kickoff meeting Wednesday at Columbia University School of Social Work.

Confronting the misuse of solitary confinement will be a challenge as many in the “tough on crime” crowd see solitary confinement as necessary and useful. However, there is mounting opposition to the growing use of solitary confinement in our nation’s jails and prisons. Conservative columnist George Will has equated solitary confinement with torture.

The New York City Department of Corrections recently ended solitary confinement for 16 and 17 year olds. Illinois Sen. Richard Durbin, chair of the Judiciary Committee has held two subcommittee hearings on solitary confinement. Two bills have been introduced in the House—H.R. 4618 sponsored by Rep. Cedric Richmond (D-LA2) would create a commission to study its use, and H.R. 4124 sponsored by Rep. Tony Cardenas (D-CA29) would eliminate the use of solitary confinement in federal juvenile facilities.

Translating Neuroscience into Policy and Practice for At-Risk Children, with Dr. Jack Shonkoff

Neuroscience has yielded new understandings of how the brain can affect mental illness, addiction, reaction to trauma, and other psychosocial conditions. Dr. Jack Shonkoff, who runs the Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University, is at the forefront of the movement to figure out what neurobiological findings could mean for the treatment of at-risk children. His most ambitious collaboration to date is the Frontiers of Innovation initiative, which draws on the biological, behavioral and social sciences in hopes of producing breakthrough outcomes for children facing adversity.

Dr. Shonkoff and Kat Brewer, surrounded by art from the Frontiers of Innovation Knowledge Wall.
Dr. Shonkoff and Kat Brewer, surrounded by art from the Frontiers of Innovation Knowledge Wall.

A doctoral candidate at the Columbia School of Social Work (CSSW), Kathryne (Kat) Brewer and I were pleased to have the chance to interview Dr. Shonkoff about the initiative for CSSW’s podcast program, Social Work Matters. The night before we recorded the episode, Dr. Shonkoff had delivered our School’s 2014 Lucille N. Austin Lecture, in which he talked about the discovery that children who are exposed to high levels of stress through abuse or neglect have trouble developing the circuitry in the brain (the pre-frontal cortex) necessary for controlling their impulses and solving challenges—the “executive functions” that would help them succeed in adulthood. He also spoke about ways this could be addressed through research, policy and practice.

During our podcast, we went a little deeper into why Dr. Shonkoff is so determined to take findings like this one and try to build a new brain-based model of family and child welfare practice. He told us that before he went into academia and was still practicing as a pediatrician, he had gravitated toward helping families with children with disabilities. That experience had taught him there are limits to what a care provider can do in the face of overwhelming odds, but he also came away thinking he should not be satisfied with just trying to make the best of the situation.

This conclusion has colored his feelings about the fiftieth anniversary of President Johnson’s War on Poverty, he went on to say. On the one hand, he doesn’t want to demean the work done in the past five decades and the progress made. On the other hand, he’s “not happy” with how far we’ve come, particularly as it affects children. He said he would propose using the best of what we have out there as a starting point to take anti-poverty programs to the next level. Some of the principles we developed 50 years ago have withstood the test of time. But we have also made some new findings that need to be incorporated.

For more information on the Frontiers of Innovation initiative, I suggest that you listen to our 20-minute podcast. Dr. Shonkoff is particularly enlightening in his responses to Kat’s questions about how to ensure that research findings influence policy and how to work across disciplines. He is also unusually open to the social work perspective, having at one point served as dean of the Heller School of Social Policy and Management, Brandeis University.

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