Aug 31 2010

Let’s Remove ALL Police Officers from Schools…

Researcher and Professor Aaron Kupchick has a new book out about school discipline issues and zero tolerance policies.

In his recently published book, Homeroom Security: School Discipline in an Age of Fear, Kupchik examines disciplinary practices in schools, practices that include assigned police officers, drug-sniffing dogs, metal detectors, armed security guards, surveillance cameras and zero tolerance policies.

Kupchik spent time inside four schools in two states observing teachers, administrators and students. Two of the schools are located in the Southwest and two are in the Mid-Atlantic region. In each state, one school’s student body is mostly middle-class white students and one school’s population is composed of mostly lower-income minority students.

Kupchik found discipline was doled out similarly in all four schools.

“When students got in trouble, the people in charge of discipline didn’t ask questions about why they got into trouble or didn’t try to solve their underlying problems,” he said.

Instead, disciplinarians followed what Kupchik calls excessive and counterproductive strategies for dealing with students’ misbehavior, one of the worst of which is the popular notion of zero tolerance, policies that assign a certain punishment to an infraction regardless of circumstance.

Here is Kupchik sharing the central thesis of this study.

I just found out about this book last week so I have not yet read it. I am hoping to get to it in the next couple of months. He was recently interviewed in Salon Magazine about his research.

I thought that this part of the interview was particularly troubling:

As part of my research, I interviewed students, and one of the questions that seemed like a good idea at the start was asking them whether they liked having the SROs [school resource officers] in their schools. For me, having gone to public schools without cops, this really seemed odd to me, to put police officers in peaceful schools. And the students were puzzled by this question, and I quickly realized that it makes no sense to them because it’s all they’ve ever known. It’s completely normal. It makes about as much sense as if you asked them, “Should your school have a principal?”

From a review of the book:

Homeroom Security outlines suggested strategies, rooted in empirical data, for making schools safer. Among them: mandatory tutoring rather than suspension, since students often act up in class when they have trouble understanding lessons, and involving students in rule creation.

Today, schools are notably safer than they were two decades ago. National statistics show rates of violent crime and victimization on the decline. Yet, school discipline tactics trend in the opposite direction, increasing and becoming harsher.

Aug 31 2010

Hip Hop’s ‘Stand By Your Man’ in Prison Problem Or Why T.I’s ‘Got Your Back’ Makes Me Queasy…

For the last few years, I have observed a prevalence of images of prison in rap and r & b songs and videos. Certainly this trend mirrors reality because so many men of color (and increasingly black women) find themselves implicated in the criminal legal system. In fact, one in ten black males aged 25-29 was in prison or jail in 2009 as were 1 in 25 Latino males in the same age group. Black males have a 32% chance of serving time in prison at some point in their lives; Latino males have a 17% chance; while white males have only a 6% chance (Bureau of Justice Statistics). Nearly one in three (32%) black males in the age group 20-29 is under some form of criminal justice supervision on any given day – either in prison or jail, or on probation or parole.

Some popular past hip hop videos such as Alicia Keys’s “Fallin’” and Eve’s “Gotta Man ” show women dutifully supporting men who are incarcerated. The performers longingly sing about the day when their partners will be released from the pen.

One classic illustration of the “prison love” theme from a female perspective is Da Brat’s song “Ghetto Love” from her album “Anuthatantrum” (1996).

The following is a key excerpt from the song:

Hey nigga, ain’t shit gonna ever change
Between you and your boo.
Put a hold on me ever since I held you.
What compelled you to be my nigga besides passion and love?
You ran up on a real bitch with understanding and trust.
Fuck the others, none of them compare to us.
And under covers, you my muthafucka nigga.
When you stickin’ my stuff,
You laid pipe unlike any other plumber.
Took me shoppin’ all day and at night you kept me cummin’.
Made dinner – collard greens, candied yams, and steak –
Taught me how to measure grams, cook rocks, and chop weights.
Caught a case ‘cause your boy ran his mouth too much

And it’s a disgrace, how the pain felt to miss your touch.
But as the days keep passin’, keep it actin’ with stacks of letters.
Hit you so you don’t forget us
When you’d rather not be livin’ in the cellar.
Hella muthafuckas want your occupation
But they can keep pacin’ ‘cause I’m gonna be waitin’ on my baby.

And all this love is waiting for you,
My baby, sweet darling.
And all this love is waiting for you.

[Da Brat]
Don’t worry ‘bout a thing, nigga, stay down.
As long as you can hang, I’m-a be around.

Ran into your boy, had heard he’d spread the word
That you was soft, braggin’ he collectin’ your cheese
And pissing me the fuck off.
The first thought of committing a felony never left,
I missed the big breaths you took when we was puffin’ an L.
Just the little things you do with the bigger ones I saw better
SL five-hundreds, colorful Gucci sweaters and leathers, diamond letters.
Girl you broke, I saved the sugar for you,
Keep the business runnin’, droppin’ off keys in Cancun.
Cash rules and you remain to be the king of my throne.

Position taken, flippin’ calendar pages ‘til you get home.
Wanna blast your boy for snatchin’ up my happiness.
But I regret what’ll happen to this dollar foundation
If I’m incarcerated, too.

You can make it through.
We bail on the jealous who tell us the opposite of that.
Forever you and Brat.
I tried to take the blame, but you preferred to handle my fame,
So I’m waitin’ with open arms to rekindle the flame.

These lyrics illustrate Da Brat’s initiation into a life of drug dealing and her boyfriend’s subsequent arrest and incarceration. She takes over the business while he is away, all the while waiting for his eventual release. This is supposed to embody true love and devotion. While this may indeed be the reality for some young women, this and other songs perpetuate the idea that in order to exhibit true devotion, girls must put up with all manner of negative and detrimental behavior. This notion is also articulated by male performers.

For instance in his song 21 questions, 50 cent asks:

If I fell off tomorrow would you still love me?
If I didn’t smell so good would you still hug me?
If I got locked up and sentenced to a quarter century
could I count on you to be there to support me mentally?

If I went back to a hooptie from a Benz
would you poof, and disappear, like some of my friends?
If I was hit and I was hurt would you be by my side?
If it was time to put in work would you be down to ride?
I’d get out and peel a nigga cap, you chill and drive

I’m askin questions to find out how you feel inside

The video for the song picks up on the “prison” theme and expands upon it. We watch as 50 cent is talking to the beautiful Zoe Saldana from jail. In another scene, she is helping him to hide a stack of money as the cops move in to apparently make an arrest. The unequivocal message is that black women need to prove their loyalty to their “men” by putting themselves at risk of incarceration by participating in criminal activity or aiding and abetting said man. These girls are implicated in the crime either because they actively take part in it or because they harbor the person who is committing the crime.

Cole and Guy-Sheftall (2003) correctly assert that “the women many hip-hop songs celebrate are valued primarily for satisfying their men sexually and providing whatever support they need. Tragically, many young women even pass the ultimate test of loyalty by endangering themselves and their futures, including the risk of incarceration, through drug use, burglary, or prostitution, all in the name of ‘love’ (p.198).”

So this brings me to the most recent example of a “stand by your locked up man” rap song. The popular rapper T.I recently married his long time girlfriend Tiny after having served a one year prison sentence. He has talked very lovingly about the fact that she stood by him while he was in prison. While this is great for Tiny as this was her choice, I don’t want the message going out to young black women that they have to spend years “waiting” for men they love to get out of prison for the promise of marriage. T.I. served less than a year in prison and he is a rich rapper. Many young men who are locked up are unfortunately there for much longer sentences and also do not come out to a successful entertainment career. The stresses imposed on young women whose partners are incarcerated are incalculable and I really feel queasy that the message in hip hop is that they are expected to patiently wait for incarcerated men to return or worse yet to pick up their criminal enterprises while they are on the inside.

To be fair, T.I’s “Got Your Back” is really more of a love letter to his wife rather than an encouragement to engage in a life of crime. However it seems important to highlight the issues raised by this and other songs that feature women being expected to have their partners’ backs while they are incarcerated. These are not uncomplicated decisions. I want young women to find happiness in their lives and if they make a choice to wait because this is a clear headed decision, then great. However, if they are making the choice because of social pressure and the weight of expectations, then this is necessarily destructive.

Here are the relevant lyrics from the T.I song and also the video:

This is for the women who man caught a sentence
Who gonna be there for a minute but they didn’t keep their distance
They stayed home waiting on the phone.
And on visit day show up looking good smelling better, playing kissy face
Just wanna let you know we appreciate
Everything you do for us on a day to day
And I know we don’t show you all the time but we lucky that you ours
No bouquet of flowers could ever show how much we know we need you
We do all that’s in our power just to please you
See boo, fuck them girls I would leave the World ‘fore I leave you

For one young woman’s response to this post, click here.

For my response to a particular e-mail that I received about this post, click here.

Aug 30 2010

Racialized Mass Incarceration and the Criminal-Punishment Binge

Lawrence Bobo of Harvard University tackles the issue of racialized mass incarceration in a column at the which is excellent and worth reading.

Bobo makes three major arguments in the piece — the first is that the criminal-punishment binge disproportionately targets poor blacks and has even become the norm:

First, incarceration is so extreme and so biased on the basis of class and race that prison has become an ordinary life experience for poorly educated blacks, in a manner not characteristic of any other segment of American society.

My Harvard colleague sociologist Bruce Western, in his book Punishment and Inequality in America, compared rates of incarceration for two generations of men: those born in the five years immediately following World War II and those born during the height of the Vietnam War era (1965 to 1969).

Black men in the post-World War II generation who did not graduate from high school had a less than one-in-five chance of going to jail or prison by the time they were 30 years old. Similarly educated black men born in the Vietnam era, however, had a three-in-five chance of spending some time in prison by the time they reached the same age. That is, nearly 60 percent of black men in this more recent cohort were destined for jail or prison — a figure that is sure to be worse for the most recent cohorts of poor and poorly educated black men.

This now means that exposure to jail and prison is a more common experience for a generation of poor blacks than is, say, membership in a labor union, service in the military or receipt of a variety of government benefits.

Next he focuses on the high costs of incarceration. Something that I have been blogging about consistently.

Second, the growth in state expenditures on jails and prisons has far outstripped the growth in all other state expenditures, with the exception of Medicaid. A 2009 Pew Center on the States report estimates that, on average, it costs $29,000 a year to house each inmate. In 2007 we spent $49 billion on corrections overall (jails, prisons, and supervision of those on parole and probation). That figure, which is four times what it was a decade earlier, reflects growth over the decade of more than 127 percent in inflation-adjusted dollars.

Next and perhaps most importantly the criminal-punishment binge has not significantly reduced crime:

The best estimates suggest that as little as 5 percent of the decline in crime rates over the last decade-and-a-half can be attributed to the new mass-incarceration society.

Finally, he ends with this point which I think cannot be stated often enough, in fact it should be shouted from the rooftops of every state capitol:

This punitiveness binge would never have gone on for so long or reached such extreme levels if those being swept up into the criminal-justice system weren’t largely black and poor. Whether you call it the carceral state, the fourth stage of racial oppression or the New Jim Crow, the situation is unacceptable.

Read the entire article, it is excellent and concisely lays out the key problems with racialized mass incarceration.

Aug 30 2010

For Demaris: Akon’s Locked Up & the Question of Authenticity

In response to a special request from a young man named Demaris, I am going to provide my analysis of the Akon song and video “Locked Up.” However, it is my sincere hope that Demaris will find his own voice soon and begin his own blog to offer his insights about prison culture. The world is waiting to hear from you and can use a dose of your brilliance…

Akon is a multi-platinum rapper who rose to fame on the back of his debut album called “Trouble” and in particular based on his debut single titled “Locked Up.”

In the video, Akon dons an orange jumpsuit and sings about his criminal past. In the intervening years since 2004, it has been revealed that Akon exaggerated his criminal history. In 2008, the Smoking Gun website unearthed documents and published an article titled “Akon’s Con Job.” They dubbed him the “make-believe gangster.”

In the story, Smoking Gun reported:

“Akon’s ad nauseum claims about his criminal career and resulting prison time have been, to an overwhelming extent, exaggerated, embellished, or wholly fabricated…Police, court, and corrections records reveal that the entertainer has created a fictionalized backstory that serves as the narrative anchor for his recorded tales of isolation, violence, woe, and regret. Akon has overdubbed his biography with the kind of grit and menace that he apparently believes music consumers desire from their hip-hop stars.”

The site did confirm that Akon was convicted of one felony – for gun possession – and that case ended in a guilty plea with three years probation. It also revealed that the Grammy Award winner was arrested for stealing a BMW. In that case, he was detained in Atlanta for several months before prosecutors dropped all charges against him. He did not in fact serve any time in prison.

In our recent conversations Demaris, you felt that this information meant that Akon was a fraud and that he had “no right” to sing about prison life. I disagreed with you on one level because I believe that people who haven’t actually lived an experience can still authentically write about that experience.

I do agree with you that Akon has built a great deal of his credibility in the music industry based on the idea of being a “convict.” In fact the title of his second album is “Konvicted.” So I understand your resentment of Akon’s embrace of the identity of “prisoner.” He is profiting from an incarceration experience that is all too real for many people. Those people are in fact “locked up” and are not making music videos about their condition.

I recently read a tweet by Melissa Harris-Lacewell saying that “personal experience is a great place to generate hypotheses but it is a lousy place to test them (8/16/10).” I really agree with her about that. Here’s what that means to me. You cannot simply rely on your lived experience to make sense of the big world out there. You have to also look for ways to empirically test your assumptions. That’s in large part what good researchers do. You need both personal experience and social analysis that is often external to your own lived experience. It is a both/and proposition as opposed to an either/or one.

So Demaris, perhaps you and I can agree in this instance that Akon may indeed be a “fraud” with respect to not having been a prisoner AND that he could still have written music and songs about the prison experience without having been “locked up.” After all, he has had experiences with the criminal legal system and hearing what he would have to say about those would be interesting and important in their own right. In fact, even if he had never been directly impacted by the criminal legal system, he could still have provided valuable insights into that system. Because as we have talked about often, the prison industrial complex impacts all of us. Even those of us who have never personally been locked up. I value your perspectives gained from having had personal experience inside but I also know that you value my ideas even though I have never been locked up.

To a great extent, Akon was victimized by the “keeping it gangsta” ethos that has permeated so much of hip hop culture since the mid-1990s. He tried to embrace a persona that he felt would make him more marketable. He was right because he became a star based on that persona. So you can begrudge him that as this is your right. But I would also ask you to think about the larger societal forces that profit from prison culture. The big companies that profit off prison labor, the labor unions that advocate that prison guard jobs never be cut, the people running music companies who profit off selling “gangsta rap.” I hope that you see that Akon is actually a small fish in a very big pond. Of course, even small fish have a ripple effect so he is responsible for his deception. Never lose sight though of who your real enemies are. I can assure you that Akon is not one of them.

I can’t wait for the day that you start your own blog about these issues. Peace to you.

Aug 30 2010

Putting a Dent in the Prison Industrial Complex by Rejecting “Made in Prison” Products

I read an interesting article this weekend about a school board in Ithaca that decided to change its purchasing policy because it required them to buy products made by prisoners (h/t Lois Aherns of the Real Costs for Prisons).

From the article:

State law requires school districts to purchase goods from state correctional facilities under certain circumstances. Board members say the requirement is contrary to the district’s mission and hearkens back to Jim Crow-era institutions.

Board member Sean Eversley Bradwell brought the issue before the board at a meeting Tuesday night, and most members agreed with his concerns.

The history of labor in correctional facilities goes back to references to “the farm,” in the South, which succeeded slavery as an institution of racial oppression, Eversley Bradwell said. Black men were frequently sent to “do time on the farm,” for real or trumped-up infractions, he said, and the current practice of using prisoners for labor, while paying extremely low wages, echoes that past.

“There is some New York State law that says we are compelled to buy goods made in correctional facilities,” he said. “I’m putting it on the table that, no — we don’t want to buy from correctional facilities.”

I find this act of social resistance to be incredibly inspiring. I was particularly impressed by the analysis offered by Board member Eldred Harris in explaining his decision to support the change in the existing policy:

Board member Eldred Harris said he could not square the concept of benefitting financially from the prison system with a requirement to purchase goods from correctional facilities when those within the prison system are evidence of school districts’ failures.

“The causal link I see is that schools fail students of color disproportionately,” and the rate of failure of students of color corresponds with African-Americans’ disproportionate incarceration rate, Harris said.

Once imprisoned, the state utilizes prisoners’ labor for almost no pay, and then forces school districts and municipalities to purchase the products they make, he said.

“That, to me, is obscene,” he said.

I have often blogged about my ambivalence regarding prison labor. I do think, however, that mandating a school district to purchase supplies made by prisoners is unequivocally wrong. Kudos to the school board members in Ithaca for making this strong statement that they will not continue to grease the wheels of the prison industrial complex with their money.

Aug 29 2010

Sunday Musical Interlude…I Am On Your Side

Because it’s Sunday and I am recovering from yesterday’s terrific art show and fundraiser and we always need good music, here is some dead prez… I’ll be back blogging tomorrow.

Aug 28 2010

Education Not Incarceration: A Short Film by Press Pass TV

I always like to have these types of resources available for my organizing work. They are concise ways to introduce complex concepts to a broader public. Press Pass TV has developed this short documentary addressing the importance of education for youth so as to interrupt the school to prison pipeline. It is well worth watching and is under five minutes long.

Aug 28 2010

Quote of the Day… The Evil of Incarceration

I saw this recent quote which is part of a longer interview that was done with Buzz Alexander who founded the Michigan Prison Arts Project. I had to share it:

“We are looking at a national policy of mass incarceration for the purpose of social and economic control. Particular groups of human beings – sometimes referred to as a “caste” or as “the mass incarceration generation” – are dumped into incarcerating institutions and emerge so many years later that it is nearly impossible for them to function economically in their communities or as caregivers in their families. In my opinion this is a great evil”. (By Buzz Alexander)

Aug 27 2010

Adventures in Zero Tolerance Land #4: Another Student Suspended Over Hair…

I really find these stories to be infuriating… Another student has been suspended because of hair issues. Apparently this time the administration found her highlights to be too “distracting.”

From thestory:

SAN ANTONIO – An O’Connor High School honor student says she had to change her hair after the principal called it a distraction. Damaris Duarte says she has had the same hair color and style for several years but was sent to In School Suspension Thursday because of her hair.

She and her mother described her hair as brunette with blonde highlights. However, Northside ISD spokesperson Pascual Gonzalez says the blone in front with brown in back was considered “two tone” and a distraction for other students.

“It’s not a highlight. It’s two separate, contrasting colors that cause undue attention or a distraction for other students,” he said.

Gonzalez says four other girls also got in trouble because of their hair.

“There’s a girl in my first period who has pink hair and I don’t think it’s fair I have to change it when I’ve had it the same way for four years and she has bright pink hair and she gets to keep it,” Damaris said.

She dyed her hair brown today and returned to class after it was done.

Her mother Sally says her daughter got a lot of compliments for her hair and she did not consider it a distraction. We asked Gonzalez what the hair policy is at O’Connor.

“Principals at all our schools have discretion for what they will allow in the dress code and what they will not,” he said.

“It’s definitely hurtful,” Damaris said. “I had to choose between my education and my hair color.”

Sally plans to go before the school board to ask for the dress code policy to be specifically spelled out. O’Connor students went to an assembly yesterday about what’s appropriate dress and what isn’t.

Aug 27 2010

A Meditation about Youth Resisting the Prison Industrial Complex

I haven’t had the opportunity yet to feature the work of the thousands of young people across the U.S. who are actively resisting the prison industrial complex by organizing to reform and/or abolish it. I am prompted to do so now.

On August 15th, a young man named Damian Turner was shot in the back during a drive by shooting on the Southside of Chicago. Many have characterized this tragedy as Damian “being at the wrong place at the wrong time.” And yet, dozens of young people in Chicago have met a similar fate in the past 3 years. I would say that they are not the ones at the wrong place at the wrong time but rather that the conditions that birth those who are doing the shooting are simply wrong. Damian should have been able to walk freely anywhere in this city without having to fear that it would mean his demise. However we know that many young people in Chicago and in other urban centers across the U.S. do not have the luxury of freely taking to the streets in their communities. The constant fear of meeting a bad end looms in their minds and hearts. This fear is not irrational, in fact it is perfectly understandable.

In the face of all of these difficulties though, young people like Damian, on a daily basis, engage in social justice organizing. They lead protests, they organize rallies, they run popular education workshops, they write music, they create art. They say “No justice, No peace” and they mean it. I am so lucky to be able to work with many of these young people and sometimes to serve as a mentor to them. It gives me immeasurable hope in the future. I hope that it does for you too. I want to make a pitch for an organization that I helped found called the Chicago Freedom School. CFS supports young people to develop their leadership skills and to gain an understanding of social movement history. Our hope is that this will serve as a strong foundation from which they can take action on issues that they care about. Several of the youth who have been affiliated with CFS are organizing against the prison industrial complex and many others are taking on immigration issues, LGBTQ issues, food justice, just to name a very few topics of concern. The arts play a big role at CFS in providing youth with space to express themselves. There are many other terrific organizations in Chicago that support youth to grow as organizers and activists.

Damian belonged to one such organization. Besides being an organizer, he was a poet and artist. Damian wrote a powerful song about the Cook County Juvenile Temporary Detention Center (formerly known as the Audy Home). He lamented the human rights abuses that take place there. Please take 5 minutes out of your day to listen to his words and to celebrate his legacy with all of us who were lucky to cross his path.