Oct 31 2010

A Fable by Etheridge Knight

I have always been a big fan of Etheridge Knight.  So instead of my usual Sunday Musical Interlude, I have decided to share a Sunday Poetry Interlude…

A Fable

Once upon a today and yesterday and nevermore there were 7 men and women all locked / up in prison cells. Now these 7 men and women were innocent of any crimes; they were in prison because their skins were black. Day after day, the prisoners paced their cells, pining for their freedom. And the non-black jailers would laugh at the prisoners and beat them with sticks and throw their food on the floor. Finally, prisoner #1 said, “I will educate myself and emulate the non-colored people. That is the way to freedom—c’mon, you guys, and follow me.” “Hell, no,” said prisoner #2. “The only way to get free is to pray to my god and he will deliver you like he delivered Daniel from the lion’s den, so unite and follow me.” “Bullshit,” said prisoner #3. “The only way / out is thru this tunnel i’ve been quietly digging, so c’mon, and follow me.” “Uh-uh,” said prisoner #4, “that’s too risky. The only right / way is to follow all the rules and don’t make the non-colored people angry, so c’mon brothers and sisters and unite behind me.” “Fuck you!” said prisoner #5, “The only way / out is to shoot our way out, if all of you get / together behind me.” “No,” said prisoner #6, “all of you are incorrect; you have not analyzed the political situation by my scientific method and historical meemeejeebee. All we have to do is wait long enough and the bars will bend from their own inner rot. That is the only way.” “Are all of you crazy,” cried prisoner #7. “I’ll get out by myself, by ratting on the rest of you to the non-colored people. That is the way, that is the only way!” “No-no,” they / all cried, “come and follow me. I have the / way, the only way to freedom.” And so they argued, and to this day they are still arguing; and to this day they are still in their prison cells, their stomachs / trembling with fear.

Source: The Essential Etheridge Knight (University of Pittsburgh Press, 1986)

Oct 27 2010

For Many Marginalized Youth, “IT DOES NOT GET BETTER”

I had to interrupt my hiatus to write about this issue which has really been gnawing at me.

(Crossposted at Daily Kos)

Let me start by saying that I am always in favor finding ways to support young people; particularly young people who are targeted by oppression and bullying.  Dan Savage’s “It Gets Better Project” seems to be a well-intentioned effort.  I do, however, want to register another perspective about this effort.  I believe that it actually obscures structural and institutional oppression and this is very problematic.

The truth is that for many marginalized youth (especially queer youth of color), “it” will not get better without a massive social movement that transforms current social inequality and oppression.  The fact that the “it” is unnamed is a serious flaw in the effort.

Just yesterday, I read a staggering article about the plight of African American youth with respect to unemployment.

The article explained:

It’s possible that I just didn’t see it but one of the most significant and alarming statistic in the nation’s September employment report seems to have gone mostly unnoticed. So here it is. The unemployment rate for each of the major demographic groups remained about the same last month, some even declined a tad. However, the seasonally adjusted unemployment rate for African Americans between the ages of 16 and 19 reached 49 percent, up from 45.4 percent in August and 41.7 percent for the same period last year.

So 50% of black youth were unemployed in September.  This is a recipe for social disaster.  How exactly is it going to “get better” for these young people?  By individualizing the message of his campaign, Dan Savage actually makes it palatable to the powers that be.  The message of the campaign is non-threatening and provides an outlet for even Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama to film videos to post on youtube. I want to be clear that there is nothing wrong with putting out such videos.  What I worry about is that they are not being accompanied by a broader interrogation of the root causes of the violence that young people are experiencing.

Where are the structural critiques about the everyday violence that young people of color are facing across the U.S.?  And more importantly, where are the calls for large scale social mobilization for addressing the root causes of this violence?  Pairing the individual testimonials with an actual analysis and call to mass mobilization would be more conducive to actual social transformation.

A group of queer youth in Chicago put out a statement late last week about the recent coverage about LGBTQGNC suicides across the country.  I am going to share the entire statement because these young people make the case much better than I ever could.

Over the past few weeks, there has been increased reporting on violence directed towards queer youth. As an organization of queer and transgender youth of color, working specifically to make Chicago schools safe and affirming for all students, Gender JUST has drafted the below response to the current discourse around bullying, school violence, and LGBT youth.

First off, we would like to note that what we have seen of late is an increase in the reporting and discussion of school violence – not an increase in the violence itself. Young people of color face violence consistently. As queer and transgender youth of color in public schools, violence is a reality we live daily in our schools, on our streets, in our communities, and in our lives. Whether the violence is self-inflicted, gang-based, based on pure hate and ignorance, or the systemic violence perpetrated by the state and our institutions such as our schools, police, welfare system, non-profits, and hospitals, we need to have an ongoing analysis of violence that lasts longer than our brief memory of the deaths of a select grouping of queer youth.

It is critical to remember that we face violence as youth, as people of color, as people living in poverty, as queers, as trans and gender non conforming young people. We can’t separate our identities and any approach to preventing violence must be holistic and incorporate our whole selves. We have seen an overly simplistic and unneuanced reaction to the recent violence; from Dan Savage telling young people to wait it out until “it gets better” and from Kathy Griffin declaring that passing Gay Marriage and overturning Don’t Ask Don’t Tell would somehow stop the violence in our lives, we have found this response to be as misguided, irrelevant, and offensive as the conservative LGBT Movement itself.

While youth violence is a very serious issue, the real bullies we face in our schools take the form of systemic violence perpetrated by the school system itself: sex education that ignores queer youth and a curriculum that denies our history, a militarized school district with cops in our schools, a process of privatization which displaces us, increasing class sizes which undermine our education and safety. The national calls to end the violence against queer youth completely ignore the most violent nature of our educational experience.

Our greatest concern is that there is a resounding demand for increased violence as a reaction, in the form of Hate Crime penalties which bolster the Prison-Industrial-Complex and Anti-bullying measures which open the door to zero-tolerance polices and reinforce the school-to-prison pipeline.  At Gender JUST, we call for a transformative and restorative response that seeks solutions to the underlying issues, takes into account the circumstances surrounding violence, and works to change the very culture of our schools and communities.

Gender JUST had a momentous victory towards this end in early 2010.  Through grassroots youth-led organizing, Gender JUST developed a Grievance Procedure based on the principles of Restorative Justice for Chicago Public Schools.  But there is still significant work to be done.  You can help reduce violence against queer youth by supporting Gender JUST’s work to develop leadership and build power among queer youth of color!

For more information about Gender JUST and to find out how you can support our work, contact info@genderjust.org.

I’d like to see the Gender Just statement getting just as much coverage as the “It Gets Better Project” but somehow I doubt that this will be the case.  What the youth from Gender Just are articulating is a critique of structural and institutional violence that has a much bigger impact on many more young people than the actions of individual bullies. This is the conversation that should be being engaged across this country.  The rest is just cosmetic.

Watch Gender Just organizer Benjamin Perry talking about school pushout and their work to address this. Benjamin participated on the youth activist panel that I organized a couple of weeks ago.

Oct 24 2010

Prison Culture on Hiatus Until November 1st…

Art created by a participant in a comic arts project at our local youth jail (2010)

This upcoming week will be absolutely slammed with work, election volunteering and other responsibilities for me. I am also getting ready to release two new projects that I have been working on for some time.

As such, Prison Culture will be on a short hiatus while I complete those projects. I look forward to sharing one of these projects in particular with everyone on November 1st.

Peace to all.

Oct 24 2010

Sunday Musical Interlude: There is Never A Bad Time to Listen to Ella’s Song

I love this song. “Strong People Don’t Need Strong Leaders.”

Oct 23 2010

Sirens: A Spoken Word Piece by Kuumba Lynx Youth

I was privileged to organize an event this past Saturday featuring some amazing youth activists and leaders in Chicago who are addressing the school to prison pipeline.

This was one of the more powerful moments of the day. Youth from Kuumba Lynx perform a terrific spoken word piece called “Sirens.” I dare you not to be inspired to continue to work towards dismantling the pipeline after watching this performance. Consider making a donation to Kuumba Lynx for their wonderful work with youth.

Oct 22 2010

Prison Prep: How Our Schools are Preparing Youth for Menial Labor in the PIC

I write often about the connection between schools and future incarceration. This is because it is my deep belief that for many youth of color and other marginalized youth the American “educational” system is really something more akin to prison prep. As an educator and organizer, I find this immoral and destructive.

Today I read about another illustration of the school to prison pipeline as a 5th grader was forced to clean toilets during an in-school suspension. From the article:

A 5th grader at Wheatley Elementary School was serving an in-school suspension for fighting at school and given what the school calls a special work assignment. This means instead of being in the classroom, he follows the custodian around all day — cleaning everything from the floors to the toilets.

“They make me clean the whole school around. Cleaning paper around the school inside and outside the school too,” the student said.

Predictably most of the commenters on this story, see nothing wrong with this as a form of “punishment” for the students’ “offense” which was fighting. The “tough on crime” contingent apparently has no boundaries. This view apparently also extends to how we should treat 10 year olds.

The young boy described his day this way:

“I went to the laundry room [to] sweep and mop. Then I went to the restrooms and they didn’t give me any gloves,” the student said.

The student said he was handed over to a custodian who then took him into the bathroom, handed him different cleaning chemicals and told him to scrub the toilets.

Orange County Public Schools said having a child clean the school, as part of a suspension, is not out of the ordinary. But the student would never handle cleaning products.

Yet, the student said he did.

“They told me to clean the toilet and to get this liquid, like it was green. Then that thing would put my hands red,” the student said.

The boy’s father and brother later took him to the hospital for what they are calling chemical burns.

“He started to feel like his hands were itchy and my mom noticed he had bumps,” said Jose Nogueras, the boy’s brother.

His parents only speak Spanish, so his 18-year-old brother is speaking for the family.

“He felt like he was a prison-mate. That they had him clean outside the school, inside the bathrooms, the cafeteria. It was just too much,” Nogueras said.

The school insists that the boy did not handle any cleaning products. Though the boy and his family dispute this claim. The boy was subjected to an 8 hour workday which the district does not dispute.

What lesson was the school trying to teach this young man? What did he learn? I would suggest that he learned that fighting will get you sentenced to 8 hours of hard labor. Great lesson Wheatley School… Great lesson..

Oct 21 2010

Art on the Inside: Incarcerated Girls Share Their Lives

I have written a lot about the role of art in the social movement to eradicate the prison industrial complex. A few weeks ago, I shared the story of how I was properly chastened from complaining about my day by seeing the art created by an incarcerated girl as part of a Comic arts project.

In August, youth incarcerated in our local jail participated in a creative comic arts workshop. Through this project, they were able to share their stories and learn about comics. I have created posters out of some of their work and am planning to bring those over this weekend. I hope that seeing some of their work in poster form will provide them with a sense of pride about what they were able to accomplish.

Currently a group of youth in the community are taking part in a similar workshop and at the end of the process we will create one comic zine about juvenile justice that will be shared with both groups of youth.

Below are some terrific examples of what the incarcerated girls who participated in the workshop produced:

Created by Young Woman at CCJTDC

Art created by Youth at CCJTDC

I hope to share examples from the incarcerated boys at another time.

Oct 20 2010

Decarcerate the Mentally Ill…

I have previously written about the criminality of warehousing the mentally ill in jails and prisons.

Well yesterday the National Alliance on Mental Illness forcefully made the case that people with mental illness do not belong in jails and prisons.

Here are some facts that the Alliance relays:

* About two million people with serious mental illness are booked into local jails each year. About 30 percent of female and 15 percent of male inmates in local jails have serious mental illness such as schizophrenia or bipolar disorder. The majority of arrests are for non-violent offenses such as disturbing public order or property offenses. Many have been homeless.

* Seventy percent of youth in the juvenile justice system also experience mental health disorders, with 20 percent experiencing disorders so severe that their ability to function is significantly impaired.

* In prisons, almost 25 percent of inmates live with serious mental illness, but their conditions are often under-treated—or not treated at all. Harsh conditions, including isolation and noise, can “push them over the edge” into acute psychosis. An estimated 70,000 prisoners suffer from psychosis on any given day.

* Fifty percent of people with mental illness who have previously been in prison are rearrested and returned to prison not because they have committed new offenses, but because they have been able to comply with conditions of probation or parole—often because of mental illness.

* In prison, people with mental illness often lose access to Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security benefits. Even when benefits can be restored upon release, reapplying for can be time-consuming and complex. Without case management and community assistance, individuals with mental illness are at risk of requiring costly emergency medical services or ending up back in prison.

* Based on a comparison of two programs in Illinois and New York, between approximately $20,000 and $40,000 per persons can be saved by providing the mental health care than putting a person in jail.

These are staggering facts that underscore the inhumanity of the prison industrial complex. The Alliance also offers state by state numbers of mentally ill people in prisons (remember that this EXCLUDES jails which as we know have become are biggest mental health institutions).

Adults with Mental Illness in Prison by State; rounded to 100 (excludes local jails)

Alabama 7,100
Alaska 700
Arizona 8,900
Arkansas 3,500
California 41,400
Colorado 5,600
Connecticut 3,400
Delaware 1,000
District of Columbia N/A
Florida 24,600
Georgia 12,600
Hawaii 1,000
Idaho 1,700
Illinois 10,900
Indiana 6,800
Iowa 2,100
Kansas 2,000
Kentucky 5,100
Louisiana 9,100
Maine 500
Maryland 5,500
Massachusetts 2,400
Michigan 11,700
Minnesota 2,300
Mississippi 5,200
Missouri 7,200
Montana 900
Nebraska 1,100
Nevada 3,100
New Hampshire 700
New Jersey 6,200
New Mexico 1,500
New York 14,400
North Carolina 8,200
North Dakota 300
Ohio 12,400
Oklahoma 5,800
Oregon 3,400
Pennsylvania 11,800
Rhode Island 600
South Carolina 5,600
South Dakota 800
Tennessee 6,500
Texas 37,700
Utah 1,500
Vermont 400
Virginia 9,200
Washington 4,300
West Virginia 1,400
Wisconsin 5,100
Wyoming 500

Oct 19 2010

Representing the Pipeline: Art Illustrating the School to Prison Pipeline

For over a year, I have been lucky to work with a terrific group of young people who are conducting a participatory action research project about the impact of harsh disciplinary policies on students’ educational outcomes. Specifically, they are focusing on school pushout and its connection to the school to prison pipeline.

As part of their work, we collaborated to host an event back in July in partnership with Connect Force of Alternatives Inc. The event called “Representing the Pipeline” engaged youth in conversation about harsh school disciplinary policies and school pushout. Youth then created art depicting how they viewed the school to prison pipeline.

In all, 17 amazing pieces of art were created. You can see them below:

Oct 19 2010

The Global Prison Industrial Complex: Worldwide Exploitation

Areca Plates Manufactured by Prisoners in the Central Prison

I think that it is important to be clear about the fact that the reach of the prison industrial complex is global. This was brought home to me again this weekend when I read an article about the labor of Indian prisoners who make everything from soap to clothing.

From an article in the Hindu newspaper titled “Jail Production Hits A New High“:

Production by the prison industrial units in the Tiruchi Central Prison involving convicts touched a new high in the 2009-10 financial year.

Over 100 convicts undergoing lengthy prison terms are making products such as file pads, washing soaps, candles, areca plates, bandage cloth and gauze cloth and uniforms, which are supplied to various government departments and private units.

Production of file pads by the binding industrial unit crossed the one lakh mark for the first time in 2009-10. The total number of file pads, which are supplied to various government offices, manufactured in 2009-10 was 1.25 lakh — 50,000 more than that of the previous year.

The total number of soap bars manufactured in 2009-10 exceeds 2.79 lakh.

The soap bars are supplied to prisons across the State besides government hospitals, government homes and the Fire and Rescue Services Department, say prison authorities.

Through 30 handlooms, the weaving industrial unit produced over 11,000 blankets. In addition to supplying to prisoners and prison staff, the blankets are delivered to the police and fire and rescue services departments, government hospitals and government homes.

Ten thousand metres of gauze and 18,000 metres of bandage were produced in 2009-10. The raw materials are procured and given to prison industrial units for manufacture of the products.

The prison industrial units in Tiruchi jail recorded highest production in 2009-10 when compared to the last four years, says the Superintendent of Prison, Central Prison, Tiruchi A. Murugesan.

Wages are paid to the convicts involved in the manufacture of products and the amount is handed over to them at the time of release, say the authorities.

Mr. Murugesan said about 34 tonnes of candles were manufactured through support and assistance from a non-governmental organisation and supplied to a private unit.

Ever since the areca leaf plate manufacturing unit was set up inside the prison in April 2009 in association with a service organisation, over two lakh areca plates had been manufactured and supplied, he added.

The prison also had a tailoring unit which makes uniforms for convicts lodged in Tiruchi and Cuddalore Central Prisons besides to Borstal School at Pudukottai where young offenders are lodged.