Nov 30 2010

Inside A Columbian Prison: A Picture Show

I don’t do this enough but I do hope to feature more about prisons around the world in the next few months. The focus of this blog is the prison industrial complex in the United States. However the reach of the PIC is actually global with U.S. companies like the Geo Group owning private prisons in Canada and around the world.

I saw this a couple of weeks ago in one of my favorite magazines called GOOD.

Photographer Vance Jacobs created this series of photographs providing an inside view of Bellavista Prison. Here are just a few of the photos from the series.

You can see the entire photo essay on GOOD’s website. Also, check out Vance Jacob's other moving work.

Nov 29 2010

Making Restorative/Transformative Justice Real: A Rape Survivor Leads the Way…

“Forgiveness is not an occasional act; it is a permanent attitude. – Martin Luther King Jr.

A good friend of mine shared a remarkable article with me today. I am having a difficult time writing this because the subject hits so close to home. As a survivor myself, I find this woman’s response and her story even more poignant and impactful. My ideas about restoration and transformation were also forged in the fires of experience. I too had to learn that forgiveness is not earned but given.

The article opens with this:

The mother who was sexually assaulted at gunpoint in front of her children while cross-country skiing last week in a south Minneapolis park has a message for her neighbors:

Come out this week, she wrote Sunday on an online neighborhood site, to celebrate the Powderhorn Park area where the attack took place and help residents take back the neighborhood, which has seen several acts of violence this month.

“Celebrate our riches,” the unidentified 45-year-old woman, who signed her statement “The ‘Mother’ in the News,” wrote in support of organizers putting together two gatherings this week.

Take a moment to let this sink in for you. Think about the courage that it takes for this woman to share her experience with her community in this way just a couple of days after her rape.

“We survived,” she wrote of her ordeal. “We’re blessed with an abundance of support and love. … Wow, what a great neighborhood we live in.”

Last week, four teenage boys were arrested on suspicion of having sexually attacked her in the park and, in a separate assault, two teenage girls in a nearby garage.

Earlier this month, a 12-year-old girl standing on her porch in the Powderhorn neighborhood was shot in the neck and possibly paralyzed for life.

Those crimes prompted residents and members of the Powderhorn Park Neighborhood Association to plan a rally this Wednesday and a brainstorming session Thursday, to make the area safer.

From Just Seeds Artists' Cooperative - Critical Resistance

Whenever people complain to me about the injustice of the current criminal legal system, I always respond that the only way that we are going to change this is by acting locally. Here is a perfect example of a community coming together in the face of real violence and tragedy to reconnect with each other and to think about collective ways to ensure safety for themselves and their neighbors. I am certain that there are hundreds of similar examples that take place every day in communities across the U.S. Unfortunately, these are never featured in the press. This is what makes this particular case so remarkable.

Instead of grief and outrage, participants have been asked to “bring music, art, puppets, laughter, hope and food,” Priesmeyer wrote in an e-mail announcing the gathering.

That sentiment was echoed by the mother, who was cross-country skiing with her 10-year-old son and 13-year-old daughter when they were accosted.

“I would love it if people came out to sing, dance, ski, sled, play Frisbee,” the mother wrote in her posting. “Let’s make it a celebration of our community and our park.”

The four arrested boys — from 14 to 16 years old — are also being held in the sexual attacks on the girls who were attacked after the assault on the woman. The suspects are likely to face charges that include rape, aggravated robbery and false imprisonment, police said.

Four boys ages 14 to 16 years old… Their lives are now forever altered. How would you react to this situation? How would you channel your understandable anger and grief at the perpetrators of this violence? Here’s how the woman who was assaulted responded:

“I want to tell you that my children and I are doing quite well,” she wrote, “considering that we had a gun held to our chests only three days ago.”

She said she and her family are forgiving of the suspects, not much older than her children. “I guess I might fall into despair, hopelessness and hatred sometime along my healing journey, but I can honestly say I don’t experience them right now,” she wrote. “My spiritual practices ground me in love and possibility.”

She noted that on Thanksgiving Day, the day after the attack, her son told her how he felt sorry for their assailants because they were in jail and would not be able to have the kind of fun life he has now.

“I’m pretty amazed at his compassion and understanding,” she wrote. “I have a lot to learn from my kids about staying in touch with what really matters in life. We sure got a profound lesson in having gratitude for just being alive.

It is hard to continue to write as my eyes fill with tears. I was told years ago that to forgive is not for others but for oneself. This seems to be a sentiment embodied in the response of this woman and her family. I remember being consumed with anger and hatred after my own assault. And yet I was the one who ultimately suffered with those emotions. I know that there are many examples of cruelty in the world. I am not naive or pollyannish. But in this story, we also see human beings’ incredible capacity for forgiveness and compassion. These acts of compassion often go unnoticed. They should not. They need to be underscored and promoted.

I wrote about Desmond Tutu last week. He has written that “at times of despair, we must learn to see with new eyes.” I think that this is what this woman must be doing. “Seeing with new eyes.” He has also written that:

“Forgiveness gives us the capacity to make a new start…And forgiveness is the grace by which you enable the other person to get up, and get up with dignity, to begin anew…In the act of forgiveness we are declaring our faith in the future of a relationship and in the capacity of the wrongdoer to change.”

Contrary to popular belief, this is not about martyrdom but about survival. I know that my own ability to forgive freed me to move forward. This is the promise of restorative and transformative justice. It isn’t something one gets from the traditional criminal legal approach to addressing violence and crime.

I opened by quoting Martin Luther King Jr. and will close with some more words from him:

“If I hit you and you hit me, and I hit you back and you hit me back, and go on, you see, that goes on ad infinitum. It just never ends. Somewhere somebody must have a little sense, and that’s the strong person. The strong person is the person who can cut off the chain of hate, the chain of evil.”

This woman is the strong person. Please take the time to read the entire article. I promise that you will not regret it.

Nov 29 2010

The Narcotic Farms: Drug Treatment & Incarceration 1935-1975

Yesterday, I read an article in the Calgary Sun about their top cop calling for “safe jails for addicts.”

Calgary’s top cop says he is patiently pushing for a so-called safe jail to be established as an alternative to traditional incarceration for people fighting addictions and mental illness.

Chief Rick Hanson said bona fide criminals belong in jail but he wants to see a “safe jail” for those who end up in the system because of mental health or addictions issues.

About half the people in Canadian prisons today are mentally ill, said Hanson.

The idea behind the safe-jail concept is for people handed two-years-less-a-day sentences — and who qualify — to be sent to a secure detox/addictions treatment facility where they will get treated for the issues which foist them into the criminal justice system.

“These are not criminals, they’re .. an addict,” he said.

Hanson stressed the “velvet-glove approach,” would not apply to criminals, without such issues, who have earned a jail term.

“I have no sympathy for gang bangers, sex predators, psychopaths or domestic abusers,” he said.

I am not going to comment on what Mr. Hanson had to share except to say that apparently everything old is new again…

About a year ago, I realized that despite my constant ranting about how the war of drugs was destructive and only serves to swell the ranks of prisoners, I actually knew very little about how drug addiction had been treated historically in the U.S. This led me to a documentary called The Narcotic Farm. For others who were similarly uninformed, I cannot recommend the documentary and its accompanying book more highly.

The film and accompanying book tell the story of how addition was treated in the U.S. between 1935 and 1975.

A press release about the documentary describes it this way:

From its opening in 1935, the United States Narcotic Farm in Lexington, Kentucky, epitomized the nation’s ambivalence about how to deal with drug addiction. On one hand, it functioned as a compassionate and humane hospital, an “asylum on the hill” on 1,000 acres of farmland where addicts could recover from their drug habits. On the other hand, it was an imposing federal prison built for the incarceration of drug addicts.

“Narco,” as it was known locally, was a strange anomaly, a co-ed institution where federal convicts did time alongside volunteers who checked themselves in for rehabilitation. Not long after its opening, the institution became the world’s epicenter for drug treatment and addiction research and for forty years it was the gathering place for this country’s growing drug subculture, a rite of passage that initiated famous jazz musicians, drug-abusing MDs, street hustlers, and drugstore cowboys into the new fraternal order of the American junkie.

Although it began as a bold and ambitious public works project, Narco was shut down in the 1970s amid changes in drug policy and scandal over its drug-testing program, where hundreds of federal convicts volunteered as human guinea pigs for pioneering drug experiments and were rewarded with heroin and cocaine for their efforts.

I ended up purchasing a copy of the book. I learned quite a bit. The Narcotic Farms had two main goals:
1. The complete social rehabilitation of America’s drug addicts;
2. The discovery of a permanent cure for drug addiction.

Well after 40 years of experimentation, the Farms failed to achieve either goal. The Narcotic Farms were conceived and jointly run by the Bureau of Prisons and the Public Health Service.

In the 1920s, growing numbers of addicts started showing up at prisons across the country due to the aggressive enforcement of the Harrison Narcotics Act and increasingly strict drug laws. [DOES THIS SOUND FAMILIAR?] Driven underground by law enforcement, the population of addicts that had formerly been comprised mostly of upper- and middle-class women addicted to pain medication now consisted almost entirely of working-class men hooked on illicit drugs. Police sent them to prison in droves. As addicts continued to be arrested in record numbers, the prison population skyrocketed and by the late 1920s a third of all federal prisoners were doing time on drug charges.

Incarcerated Population and Rates, 1880-2008
Prison and Jail Inmates Rate per 100,000
1880 58,609 116.9
1890 82,239 131.5
1904 97,308 118.4
1910 128,314 138.9
1923 120,284 107.4
1933 210,418 167.5
1940 274,821 207.4
1950 264,557 174.8
1960 346,015 193.0
1970 328,020 161.4
1980 503,586 220.4
1990 1,148,702 458.2
2000 1,937,482 682.9
2008 2,304,115 753.5
Source: 1880-1970, Cahalan (1986); 1980-2008, CEPR analysis of BJS data.

To deal with these drug-addicted prisoners, two federal government officials, the Bureau of Prisons’ James V. Bennett and the Public Health Service’s Walter Treadway, lobbied for a bill to establish prisons set aside just for convicted addicts. To satisfy social progressives who thought arresting addicts was unjust, they would run these prisons as hospitals where addicts could get medical treatment to cure their addictions. The two convinced Congress that addicts could be rehabilitated, and a bill authorizing the construction of two “narcotic farms” was passed in 1929. The first Narco farm opened in Lexington, Kentucky in 1935 and the second in Fort Worth, Texas in 1938.

After World War II, the face of drug addiction began to change and so did the laws to address the problem:

After 1945, “when opiate embargoes were lifted and shipping routes restored, organized crime picked up where it had left off before the war, importing large quantities of heroin into urban America. By 1949, the nation’s first youth heroin epidemic was under way. David Deitch, a Narco patient in 1951, recalls this new population of addicts as minorities and whites from the underclass, drawn to urban centers to find opportunity. Yet this population, often disillusioned by racism and the lack of opportunity they encountered upon arriving in cities, saw an explosion of drug use among its young. Heroin use caught on with the teenage children of Irish, Italian, and Jewish immigrants as well as with young Puerto Ricans and African Americans.

This new cohort of addicts was anathema to law enforcement and, in 1951, Federal Bureau of Narcotics chief Harry J. Anslinger energetically endorsed two-year mandatory minimum sentences for first time possession of narcotics convictions. Congress passed this law, as well as the draconian Narcotics Control Act of 1956, which called five-year minimum sentences for first time possession and included a death penalty provision for dealers. The sum effect of these laws — which doctors at Narco publicly opposed — was that younger and younger people were going away for longer and longer periods of time. A typical case study from Narco’s files follows:

At nineteen he began to use heroin, and shortly thereafter was placed on probation for three years for forging a narcotics prescription. After one year he violated probation by returning to the use of narcotic drugs. He was committed to Lexington for four years, was granted parole after serving more than two years, and was returned after a few months as a violator. He had again relapsed. He was again committed to Lexington. Three months after his conditional release in the summer of 1967, he was again using drugs and a few weeks later was returned to custody as a violator.”
(Source: The Narcotic Farm – The Rise and Fall of America’s First Prison for Drug Addicts by Nancy D. Campbell, JP Olsen, and Luke Walden (2008))

Unsurprising that mandatory and draconian laws and sentences were imposed on addicts once they were predominantly immigrant, black, brown and poor. Again the more things change, the more they stay the same. An additional important point to underscore is that recidivism was also rampant during this time. You would think that we would be spending a lot more money in the 21st century trying to find a MEDICAL intervention to assist drug addicts. After all, we have 40 years of data from the Narco Farm experiment to show us that incarceration does not serve addicts well.

Scientific American has a photo slide show about the Narcotic Farm. NPR interviewed the filmmakers about the Narcotic Farm. You can listen to the story here.

Nov 29 2010

Coming Soon to the U.S.? Scanning Rectums for Contra-Band

I shudder to think that American prison officials are going to pick up on this new technology. Also, how soon before they start using this on everyone at the airport? This takes surveillance culture to a new level of intrusiveness.

From an article in the Telegraph:

The £6,500 chairs are being put in 102 jails across Britain aimed to tackle a surge in phone smuggling.

Prisoners will have to sit on the chairs, called Body Orifice Security Scanners (Boss), which bleep if they have a phone hidden inside them.

They are then scanned in a non-intrusive manner and can also be used to detect drugs and weapons.

The mobile Boss chairs have three sensitive sensors which can detect metal items as small as a pin.

Resembling an electric chair, they have a metal detector on the seat and audio and visual alarms are activated when metal is carried into the magnetic field.

The person being screened positions their chin near the oral sensor and then sits momentarily in the chair. The entire procedure takes a few seconds.

So far two of the Boss devices have helped detect 21 mobile phones in just months at Woodhill prison, in Milton Keynes.

Prisons Minister David Hanson said: “This is a valuable tool towards identifying mobile phones.

“We want to prevent mobile phones coming in, prevent contact with drug runners on the outside, prevent intimidation and prevent individuals running criminal activities from inside.”

Body Orifice Security Scanners??? More money poured into the prison industrial complex.

Nov 28 2010

Musical Interlude: Mary Chapin Carpenter Sings About Hurricane Katrina…

I heard the song “Houston” right after Katrina and I thought that it should be the anthem of that man-made tragedy. I never understood why it was not a bigger hit for Mary Chapin Carpenter.

Nov 28 2010

“They Tell Me Joe Turner’s Come and Gone:” Music, Prison, & the Convict Lease System

He come wid forty links of chain,
Oh Lawdy!
Come wid forty links of chain,
Oh Lawdy!
Got my man and gone.

My dad loves jazz and blues. When I was a kid, I remember hearing Coltrane, Muddy Waters, Mississippi John Hurt, etc… I didn’t appreciate their artistry at the time. I only came to enjoy the music when I became an adult.

I remember one song though that my father played often. It was called “Joe Turner’s Blues.” I didn’t learn until about 20 years ago, what that song was really about.

In the late 19th century, a man named Joe Turney became well-known in the South. He was the brother of Pete Turney who was the governor of Tennessee. Joe Turney had the responsibility of taking black prisoners from Memphis to the Tennessee State Penitentiary in Nashville. It is said that Joe would make a habit of distributing some of the prisoners to convict farms along the Mississippi River, where employers paid commissions to obtain laborers.

According to Leon F. Litwack in his terrific book Trouble in Mind: Black Southerners in the Age of Jim Crow:

“Most of the prisoners had been rounded up for minor infractions, often when police raided a craps game set up by an informer; after a perfunctory court appearance, the blacks were removed, usually the same day, and turned over to Turney. He was reputed to have handcuffed eighty prisoners to forty links of chain. When a man turned up missing that night in the community, the word quickly spread, ‘They tell me Joe Turner’s come and gone.” Family members were left to mourn the missing (p.270).”

Joe Turney was the embodiment of the convict leasing system. Litwack writes: “By the 1890s, the distribution of black prisoners, most of them arrested on minor charges, and their use (and abuse) as convict laborers had become a way of life in the New South — a source of immense profits for the states and employers, and a source of extraordinary suffering for black men who were all too often worked to death (p.270-71).”

It is important to understand that we can trace the beginnings of the systematic imprisonment of black people to this era. During slavery, plantation justice prevailed. Few if any slaves were put in jails or prisons. Their labor was too valuable. “Punishment” for any perceived offenses were carried out by slaveholders themselves. Right after emancipation, things changed drastically and whites sought to exert social control over blacks who they no longer officially owned by law.

Litwack points out that blacks were forced to serve long terms at hard labor for minor offenses. For example, a black person could “serve up to five years in prison for stealing a farm animal or any property valued at $10 or more.” Blacks labored on chain gangs, were leased out as convicts to work where they labored in coal and iron mines, in sawmills and turpentine camps, laid railroad tracks, built levees, etc…

Basically the convict lease system served as a way to re-enslave black people who had only recently been “freed” through Emancipation.

Somehow Joe Turney became Joe Turner in the many versions of “Joe Turner’s Blues.” Here is Mississippi John Hurt’s version of the song as sung by Art Linton:

Here are the lyrics:

JOE TURNER BLUES – Mississippi John Hurt

Joe Turner, he’s the man I do despise

Joe Turner the man I do despise

Goin’ around trying to take men’s wives

Joe Turner, drove him from my door
Joe Turner, drove him from my door
Hope to God that he won’t come back no more

Policeman, you better not let him ’round
Policeman, you better not let him ’round
If you don’t arrest him, I’m gonna shoot him down

Joe Turner, drove him from my door
I drove Joe Turner, drove him from my door
May steal my good girl all I know

Oh they tell me Joe Turner’s in this town
They tell me
Well they tell me Joe Turner’s in this town

He’s a man I hate, I don’t want him hangin’ around
He’s a man I hate, don’t want him hangin’ around
If you don’t arrest him, I’m gonna shoot him down

I saw Joe Turner runnin’ down the road,
I saw Joe Turner
Don’t care where he’s headed, don’t care where he goes.

And I hope to God that he won’t come back no more
And I hope to God that he won’t come back no more

He’s here to steal my high teasin’ brown
He’s here to steal my high teasin’ brown
If you don’t arrest him, I’m gonna shoot him down

For those who are interested in learning more about the Convict Lease System, I encourage you to read the following books:

Blackmon, Douglas A. (2008). Slavery by Another Name: The Re-Enslavement of Black Americans from the Civil War to World War II.

Oshinsky, David M. (1996). “Worse Than Slavery”: Parchman Farm and the Ordeal of Jim Crow Justice.

Nov 28 2010

From the Annals of Prisons DO NOT Work: Will Someone Please Help DMX?

As some of you are aware, I have written about DMX in the past. I wrote about him to make a larger point about the crisis in mental health in the black community.

Well DMX is back in the news again. He has been arrested for violating the terms of his probation. I would like someone to use DMX as THE POSTER CHILD for why prisons do not work. It is obvious that the man has mental health and substance abuse issues. Prison does not solve these issues. It exacerbates them. Below is a report about his latest troubles. Watch this and I defy you not to feel furious at the f-upped criminal legal system as well as deep compassion for this troubled man.

Nov 27 2010

Infographic: The Cold Hard Facts about Incarceration

I really love data visualization. I have more books on this subject than I care to admit. I personally have no design talents so I am very envious of people who can put together infographics. Here is a recent one about incarceration in the U.S. I had been meaning to post it here for the past couple of weeks. You can click on the image itself to enlarge it.

The Cold Hard Facts on Incarceration

Nov 26 2010

Please, No More Black Pitchmen for Prisons…

Courtland Milloy recently penned a column that I wanted to call out here. His column picks up on two themes that I have previously raised. Back in October, I wrote a post titled Dear Michael Vick, Please Stop Being an Advocate for the PIC. In the post, I made the point that it is a form of internalized oppression for Vick to suggest that prison was the only thing that could have prevented his “destructive” behavior.

Next a couple of weeks ago, I wrote about Lil’ Wayne’s release from prison (against my will) to highlight the fact that we shouldn’t expect any powerful analysis from him about his incarceration experience since he was more interested in preserving his “brand” and making money.

Here are some of the most salient parts of Courtland Milloy’s column:

I’ve been hearing testimonials from celebrated black ex-offenders lately about how going to prison may have been the best thing that ever happened to them. And, frankly, it makes me queasy.

“It only takes for them to slam the doors on you one time for you to know that, ‘Look, this is serious,’ ” Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Michael Vick told NBC sportscaster Bob Costas on Sunday.

Just the slam of a cellblock door – and when it opens again 23 months later, Vick emerges not only a better man, we are told, but a better football player as a result of the experience.

As far as I’m concerned, Vick could have kept that to himself. So what if he is on the road to “redemption” after serving time for operating a dog-fighting ring? The last thing we need is a black pitchman for prisons

Next he takes on Lil’ Wayne:

Dwayne Michael Carter Jr., the 28-year-old rapper known as Lil Wayne, was released Nov. 10 from Rikers Island prison in New York after serving eight months on a weapons violation. He could have spoken out about being caged up with so many black men, at least wondered aloud how it is that in some states blacks make up more than 80 percent of those jailed on drug charges, as Alexander points out, when blacks are no more likely to use drugs than whites.

Instead, Lil Wayne comes out boasting about being rested and ready to party. He also thanked his millions of fans for making him the first rapper in history to release a top-selling album while in prison.

Life behind bars is but a breeze. What a lie.

Finally he ends with these powerful and important paragraphs about Michael Vick:

During the interview with Costas, Vick made an important observation about his time at the Leavenworth work camp, which may have gotten lost in all the talk about his comeback.

“After four or five months, I started to get comfortable in that environment, and I had to pinch myself and say I’m not supposed to be here,” Vick said. Not even a year and he’s already starting to get comfortable in his cage, as if he naturally belongs there.

No doubt Vick, who is 30, pinched himself to stay reminded of what freedom means. But he also had a lot of support from former Indianapolis Colts head coach Tony Dungy, who visited him in prison, along with family and friends.

Not every inmate gets released into the arms of loved ones, to say nothing of being embraced by the NFL.

“Upon release, ex-offenders are discriminated against, legally, for the rest of their lives, and most will eventually return to prison,” Alexander writes.

If Vick and others want to talk about prison life, let them talk about that.

Read the entire column it is worth it!

Nov 24 2010

Some Thoughts about Ubuntu & Prisons on Thanksgiving Eve…

One of the main tenets of African philosophy is the concept of “Ubuntu.” Ubuntu is really the core of what it means to be a human being. It is about being selfless and thinking about others. It is about being a compassionate person and being “connected” to others. It is about understanding that if you hurt others, you really hurt yourself.

One of my touchstones is Archbishop Desmond Tutu. I have so much respect for all that he has done and for who he is. Tutu has defined the concept of Ubuntu as the understanding that “a person is a person through other people.” He adds that Ubuntu can best be understood as “me we.” I love that term — “me we.” He has written that the “solitary, isolated human being is a contradiction in terms.” All humanity is interconnected.

This is what is so destructive about prisons. They are about isolating and incapacitating human beings. They are about deliberately severing the “me we” or Ubuntu.

Tutu writes that “those who work to destroy and dehumanize are also victims — victims, usually, of a pervading ethos, be it a political ideology, an economic system, or a distorted religious conviction. Consequently, they are as much dehumanized as those on whom they trample.”

Ubuntu forces us to consider that as we dehumanize others we are actually dehumanizing ourselves in the process. What has happened to our humanity as we imprison masses of people? What has happened to our Ubuntu? Tutu recounts the story of South African minister of police Jimmy Krueger who on hearing of the torture and killing of activist and freedom fighter Steve Biko in prison is reported to have said that his death “leaves me cold.” Tutu writes of this: “You have to ask what has happened to the humanity – the ubuntu — of someone who could speak so callously about the suffering and death of a fellow human being.”

Malusi Mpumlwana was an associate of Biko who as he himself was being tortured by the police looked at his torturers and realized that these were human beings too and that they needed him “to help them recover the humanity they [were] losing.”

Tutu has written that “the only way we can ever be human is together. The only way we can be free is together.”

On the eve of another Thanksgiving, I am grateful that the universe has not diminished my own sense of Ubuntu. I wish the same for you. I will leave you with some final words by Archbishop Tutu and wish you all a very happy Thanksgiving. Prison Culture will be back on Monday.

When we look squarely at injustice and get involved, we actually feel less pain, not more, because we overcome the gnawing guilt and despair that festers under our numbness. We clean the wound — our own and others’ — and it can finally heal. — Desmond Tutu