It all started with Viviane Saleh- Hanna studying criminology as an undergraduate. She tells us a bit about how long she has been interested in that field. “Well my mom is Palestinian and my father is Coptic from Egypt and I was born in Dubai, but I grew up most of my life in Canada.
It started out as my undergraduate degree in Criminology at the University of Ottawa and I liked it so I stayed with it. I got a masters degree at Simon Frasier University in Vancouver and then I spent two years in Nigeria working with prisoners and survivors of violence and torture survivors in Nigeria, Ghana and The Gambia,” she says. “It has just been something that I have done I guess for more than ten years at this point.”
Now she is a Ph D candidate at Indiana University still focusing her attention on the field of Criminology. Viviane shares how she got there. “The professor that came to the conference named Dr. Hal Lipinski came to a conference that I organized in Lagos, Nigeria. The conference is called ICOPA. It is the International Conference on Penal Abolition. It is a movement that started in the 1980s in Canada and the conference encompasses academics, prisoners, ex-prisoners,survivors of violence, community members, activists and people that work for the system.
ICOPA as a conference has traveled around the world. I attended ICOPA in New Zealand in 1997 and then again in Toronto in 2000 and at that time ICOPA was taken to Nigeria and so I decided to go and work on it there and when Hal Lipinski came to ICOPA in Nigeria that is when he recruited me to come to IU.”
Besides studying hard, Viviane does spend of her time lending her efforts on improving the diversity of the campus. “The academic side has been incredible. The criminal justice department here has a wide array of research amongst the professors so I have had a lot of lead way in terms of what topics I can look at and what areas I can focus in on so I really enjoy that,” she says.
“I’ve focus specifically on racism in the criminal justice system and the criminal justice system is so large in the United States because the prison population system is so huge compared to other places it makes it really easy to study criminal justice because the problems are really obvious.
In terms of my social life here, its been interesting. It has been a little bit difficult because it is a predominately white campus and being a visible minority you feel very much that you stand out a lot and the racial environment surrounding Indiana University both in Bloomington and Indiana have been somewhat tense lately so there has been some problems that people of color have had to face her on the campus,” she says.
“Recently we had a problem with the IU administration trying to close the black library on campus so we organized a protest and mobilized about seventy students in the middle of exam week to protest the closing of the black library and we succeeded somewhat. They have decided to keep it open until the end of the ’07 academic year. So most of my activities here aside from doing school and studying really hard and trying to get through the program quickly, a lot of it is working on improving the diversity and making it a more tolerant atmosphere at the IU campus.”
Before being able to write anything about the criminal justice system in America, Viviane says she always knew she had to come here to learn more about it. She says by far, the United States has the largest prison population. “I was very much intrigued by the criminal justice system in the United States. It is hugely different. The prison population has exceeded two-million which is the largest prison population in the history of the world,” she says.
“When you look at the ration composition of prisoners, you can see that the African American population at this point is five times the number of black people in prison in South Africa under apartheid, so it is a huge difference from other countries in different regimes throughout time,” she adds. “It probably is the biggest incarcerated population in the world, but I think it is very much a policy issue.
I don’t believe that the American population is more violent or more dangerous than other populations around the world. I think that the prison system is so big because of the laws and the policies are so different and the war on drugs plays a huge part in the imprisonment population here. Most people are in jail for drug related offenses.”
Once Viviane receives her PhD degree she will continue to enjoy the criminology field by teaching that subject. “I’m finishing in August and I will be starting a faculty position at the University of Massachusetts, the Dartmouth campus in September. I love education. I think that the most important thing is education. I don’t think that enough people know about the problems that the criminal justice system has in this country and I want to teach people about it.”