Dec 30 2010

New Year’s Thoughts…See You in 2011

It’s been six months since I launched this blog. The adage “time flies when you are having fun” truly applies in this instance.

Over the past 6 months, I have posted almost 500 times here. I have written about prison labor, about “reentry”, about disproportionate minority contact with the criminal legal system, about racism and all other forms of oppression, about the school to prison pipeline, about juvenile justice, about the historical underpinnings of the PIC, and so much more.

The most gratifying aspect of writing here has been the responses that it has engendered. Friends and family have told me that they have learned new things about the criminal legal system by perusing this blog. Young people have written with questions and suggestions. Strangers have reached out to me with their stories, insights and ideas. I can’t thank everyone who has offered comments, criticism, and kudos enough.

I started this blog for myself. I never thought that other people would find it particularly useful. I hoped that something that I wrote might strike one person and perhaps mobilize him or her to action. The issue of mass/hyper-incarceration is daunting and can feel overwhelming. The PIC destroys countless lives every single day. It is the civil rights issue of our time. I feel blessed to be able to contribute to bringing these issues to public consciousness in this very small way.

In the New Year, I am committed to continuing to develop this blog. I hope that some of you who regularly read it will consider posting your own ideas and contributions here. I am looking forward to guest posts from friends, colleagues, and youth that I work with. This is an invitation to join in the important work of public education, advocacy and organizing around issues of the PIC.

I wish everyone a very happy New Year and I hope that 2011 brings all manner of peace, happiness, health, and positive energy to all.

I leave you with one of my favorite songs by Nora Jones. I wish you all “peace when the day is done…”

Dec 30 2010

Prisoner Reentry as ‘Myth’: Lessons from Michael Vick

The recent controversy over Michael Vick has reaffirmed what I have been saying for what seems like an eternity…

In the U.S., the concept of prisoner reentry is a hoax and a form of symbolic violence. Michael Vick was cruel to dogs. That is a terrible thing to be sure. But for this transgression, Tucker Carlson calls for him to be executed? Some people will dismiss this comment as a rant from a right-wing nut job. I think that this is wrong. I believe that Carlson was articulating a truth about how many Americans feel: If you are a prisoner in the U.S. (particularly if you are black or brown), society would prefer that you disappear for life. If the state doesn’t kill you, hopefully the streets will.

In the past couple of days, I have read blog posts from individuals (some of whom call themselves progressives) who ‘worry’ that people who favor allowing Vick to claim a life after incarceration are actually “condoning” Vick’s actions. WTF? Who the heck is condoning the torturing of animals?

Vick already served almost two years in prison for his crime. This is more than can be said for most of the banksters on Wall Street who tanked the economy and have harmed millions of people across the globe as a result. Look I am against prisons so I am not advocating locking up Vick or the banksters. I am simply making the case that only certain people go to prison and those people are mostly black, poor, and male. Vick fits two out of those three criteria while the banksters fit none.

Sociologist Loic Wacquant (2010) offers a provocative take on the concept of reentry in an upcoming article titled “Prisoner Re-Entry as Myth & Ceremony.” The article advances a number of ideas including debunking the concept of the prison industrial complex. I am not going to address myself to Dr. Wacquant’s critique of the PIC in this post. For those interested in his thoughts on that, you can read a previous post here.

Today, I will focus in particular on some of his arguments about so-called prisoner “reentry.” Two important points stand out to me from his article. First, he makes the case that “most released convicts experience not reentry but ongoing circulation between the prison and their dispossessed neighborhoods.” Anyone who has worked with former prisoners can attest to this reality. Michael Vick’s situation is anomalous from other former prisoners because even though he lost all of his money while incarcerated, he still had a rare talent that could be monetized upon his release. This is not the case for 99.9% of the other people who are released from prison each year. Instead most former prisoners find themselves struggling to overcome legal, social, and economic obstacles upon their release. For most, the obstacles prove to be insurmountable and they return to prison. Incidentally, Wacquant makes the salient point that most former prisoners were actually members of a marginalized group “that was never socially and economically integrated to start with.” For that group, it means that the concept of reentry is a misnomer.

The next important point that I want to underscore from Wacquant’s article is focused on the way that reentry actually serves to reinforce state control over the lives of former prisoners. Wacquant (2010) writes: “Reentry outfits are not an antidote to but an extension of punitive containment as government technique for managing problem categories and territories in the dualizing city.” In their focus on the individual and on the bureaucratic management of individual problems, reentry programs actually serve as part of the apparatus of state control over the lives of former prisoners. In other words, Wacquant contends that reentry programs “are not a remedy to, but part and parcel of the institutional machinery of hyper-incarceration.” This is an important and troubling insight for all of us who focus on these issues.

I mentioned at the beginning of this post that the concept of reentry is a form of symbolic violence. What I mean by this is that reentry is actually a mirage. It is out of reach because as a society we are not serious about actually reintegrating former prisoners. We pay lip-service to this idea but we don’t do what would be necessary to lay a foundation to ensure successful reintegration. Here Wacquant doesn’t hold back in exposing the hypocrisy of this matter. I am going to quote a long section of the article because it lays bare the fallacy of the concept of reentry in the best way that I have seen to date.

[T]he so-called “reentry movement” is but a minor bureaucratic adaptation to the glaring contradictions of the punitive regulation of poverty. Proof is its measly funding: the Second Chance Act of 2008, ballyhooed by the bipartisan political coalition that passed it and the scholars it subsidizes has an annual budget of $165 million equal to less than one-quarter of one percent of the country’s correctional budget. Put differently, it provides the princely sum of $20 monthly per new convict released, enough to buy them a sandwich each week. If the authorities were serious about “reentry,” they would allocate twenty to fifty times that amount at minimum.

They would start by reestablishing the previously existing web of programs that build a bridge back to civilian life — furloughs, educational release, work release, and half-way houses — which has atrophied over the past two decades and avoid locating “reentry services” in decrepit facilities located in dangerous and dilapidated inner-city districts rife with crime and vice (Ross and Richards 2009).

They would restore the prison college programs that had made the United States an international leader in higher education behind bars, until convicts were denied eligibility for Pell Grants in 1994 to feed the vengeful fantasies of the electorate, even as government studies showed that a college degree is the most efficacious and cost-effective antidote to reoffending (Page 2004). They would end the myriad rules that extend penal sanction far beyond prison walls and long after sentences have been served — such as the statutes barring “ex-cons” from access to public housing, welfare support, educational grants, and voting — and curtail the legal disabilities inflicted on their families and intimates (Comfort 2007).

They would restrain and reverse the runaway diffusion of “rap sheets” through government web sites and private firms offering background checks to employers and realtors, which fuels criminal discrimination and gravely truncates the life-opportunities of ex-offenders years after they have served their sentence and “come clean” (Blumstein and Nakamura 2009). They would expand substance abuse treatment inside and outside prison since the vast majority of convicts suffer from serious alcohol and drug dependency and yet go untreated by the millions.

They would immediately divert low-level offenders who are mentally ill into medical facilities instead of continuing to subject them to penal abuse and medical neglect in carceral facilities as consistently recommended by leading public health experts for over two decades (Steadman and Naples 2005). They would stop the costly and self-defeating policy of returning parolees to custody for technical violations of the administrative conditions of their release (Grattet et al. 2008). The list goes on and on.

This post began with a discussion of Michael Vick’s situation and will end that way. If a rich athlete who is having his best season ever on the football field cannot engender good will from a vengeful and unforgiving public, what are the prospects for the 650,000 other people who are released from prison each year not named Michael Vick? If we are serious as a society about “second chances” and “reentry,” then we are going to need move beyond the “myth and ceremony” of those concepts to a radical shift of consciousness and a significant reallocation of resources. Otherwise, we should just stop the pretense and keep all prisoners behind bars for life which would seem to be fine with many Americans….

Update: I just came across this blog post by Dave Zirin. It looks like he is thinking along the same lines when he writes:

Michael Vick, whether he likes it or not, is humanizing the struggle to find redemption after serving time in a maximum security prison. After all, if a star quarterback doing hours of community service can’t regain a foothold in society, who could? Tucker Carlson’s efforts to dehumanize Vick and paint him as a disposable, killable individual, cuts in a way that transcends the idiocy of Murdoch’s 50 state southern strategy of dimples and dog whistles. I’d love for Carlson to spend even a week in Leavenworth and then make an effort to rebuild his nerfy little life. Then we’d see how a man without callouses could be so callous.

Dec 29 2010

Yes, In Fact, The Cops ARE In My Head…

A few years ago, my friend the brilliant and fearless Paula Rojas wrote an essay titled “Are the Cops in Our Heads and Hearts?” which was published in a book called “The Revolution Will Not Be Funded: Beyond the Non-Profit Industrial Complex.” The entire book is terrific but I will focus here on Paula’s essay.

In her piece, she talks about her organizing work in Latin America and tries to apply lessons for movement-building in the U.S. At one point, she writes that one of the questions that she is asked by people in Latin America is: “Why are you getting a permit from the police to protest police brutality?”

The question is profound on so many levels, no? One of the arguments that Paula advances in her essay is that: “Rather than challenging state power, the non-profit model actually encourages activists to negotiate, even collaborate with the state — as those police permits for anti-police brutality marches illustrate” (p.206).

She contends that U.S. activists and organizers have internalized dominant ideas of how to organize that are based on a capitalist model which distorts the possibilities for true social transformation. The cop in our heads is therefore internalized capitalism.

I want to adapt Paula’s argument for my own purposes here. The fact is that for many of us, the ACTUAL cops are in our heads and in our hearts. We acquiesce to state power because it is easier than constantly resisting it. I am currently immersed in a project about how to address police violence with youth of color. As such, I have been reading a lot about the history of police brutality and violence.

What is becoming clearer to me every day is the difficulty of imagining a world where our first response in an emergency is NOT to dial 911. What are the alternatives to calling the police?

This question is not a new one for me. It has been animating my thinking and my organizing for over 15 years now. When Public Enemy sang 911 is a Joke in the early 90s, they were not writing an anthem about alternatives to calling the police. Instead, they were offering a social critique suggesting that the police and emergency responders were not responsive to the needs of poor people of color in urban centers. So “911 is Joke” was actually a call for police and emergency responders to “do their jobs” and provide services to poor people. So far from saying, get the hell out of our neighborhoods, the argument was about the state’s neglect of these communities.

Several months ago, I came across a blog post that has stayed with me. The post titled Feeling for the Edge of Your Imagination: Finding Ways Not to Call the Police is a letter and call to action. Here are some of the passages from the post:

All of you, but especially those of you who, like myself and the two people mentioned above, are white and/or grew up middle class and/or didn’t grow up in NYC. I’m writing to you, also, if you’ve smiled your way out of a speeding ticket, if you’ve been most afraid of cops at mass protests, or if you generally feel safer when you see police around. If these things are true for you, it’s possible that you are more distanced from the real impact of policing on low-income communities of color. But whether people in your life experience those impacts regularly or not, whether you’ve spent a night in jail, done work to support political prisoners, or haven’t thought much about police brutality since Sean Bell… if you hold a commitment to making the world a better place, I’m writing to you, because there’s work to be done.

I, and many people I know, want to see a world without prisons, we want the whole industry of keeping people in cages (the Prison Industrial Complex) abolished, we want no more police.* We want a world where responses to harm are community-based, transformative and actually create safety. Where that safety comes from strengthening relations of community, where interpersonal violence dissolves along with the structural violence that facilitates it.

Many of us don’t believe in calling the police. Right now, right here, even before we’ve sufficiently built all the alternative structures for responding to harm. Both in an attempt to create the world we want to live in, and/but also because the impact of prisons and policing is brutal, oppressive, racist, traumatic. We see almost no good coming of it, certainly no transformation, no making things better. We don’t trust police, we don’t think of them as the “good guys,” and we don’t think calling them is going to change anything.

I have so little to add to the words above except to say ‘YES.’ This makes sense to me. This is a critique that I share. Working with young people in conflict with the law, I will tell you that the police are the gateway to the prison industrial complex for them. The concept of “no entry” has some currency right now. ‘No entry’ means seriously and dramatically decreasing the amount of contact that young people have with the police on the front end. One of the ways that my organization is trying make ‘no entry’ a reality is by setting up shop directly in one of our local elementary schools to be a PHYSICAL buffer against the arrest of children from school. Yet this is a tiny intervention. So much more is needed. The work has to be larger and more transformational. What is needed is a complete overhaul of how our society thinks about policing?

More from the letter:

We live in a world that’s deeply damaged by policing, in which immediate and effective community-based responses don’t necessarily exist, or we don’t know how to find/create them. Our imaginations have atrophied, our resourcefulness has withered. There are moments when immediate intervention will save someone’s life, and it needs to be fast, and the readily available structure for that immediate intervention is the police.

We live in a world in which we can feel deeply powerless or afraid. It feels terrible when we, or the people we care about, get hurt or experience harm. When I think of the moments in which I could possibly imagine calling the police, I think of people I love, and of things I hope they never experience. Why do we feel afraid? Sometimes we feel afraid because we have experienced harm, because we have experienced trauma. Sometimes we also feel afraid because we have bought into aspects of racism, classism, and media-perpetuated images of danger. Sometimes it’s the complex combination of all these things—imagination, memory, and prejudice. For women, our experiences with physical safety are complex and painful—women in my life have understandably chosen and sought police intervention when it has seemed like the only available safety measure in situations of interpersonal or sexual abuse. So given these complicated realities, how can we assure that if police are called it’s an active, intentional and reluctant choice, not a knee-jerk reaction? What can we do to push ourselves further, to take another step towards a world without prisons, without police, and without the racism and brutality they reproduce?

This question “What can we do to push ourselves further, to take another step towards a world without prisons, without police, and without the racism and brutality they reproduce?” is the one that animates much of my work and life. In 2011, I am working on several projects that I hope will continue to slowly move me towards more concrete answers to this question. But I know that the cops ARE in my head. They are in my head because of the hegemonic nature of police power. The police are the ONLY solution to addressing harm, to addressing violence, to keeping us ‘safe.’ Isn’t that true? Can we imagine anything different from this?

It is so difficult to push myself to feel “for the edge of my imagination” because I am so steeped in THIS world with all of its distractions and all of its oppressive practices. The popular education police violence project that I am working on is in part intended to help all of us to “feel for the edge of our imaginations” and to practice how NOT to call the police. One component of the project will involve sending out teams of ‘investigators’ (regular citizens) to collect stories of police contacts from young people across the city. If we can document the prevalence of these contacts and can demonstrate the lasting impacts of these contacts, I believe that we can begin to have community discussions across Chicago that will encourage us to “feel for the edge” of our imaginations.

From the letter:

So whether this is all pretty new for you, or you’ve heard this one before, or you think of yourself as a prison abolitionist, I have a suggestion: I think we all need to think through not calling the cops. We need to explore our own personal thresholds, we need to create the Heimlich Maneuver posters that will inspire us to be brave, avoid knee-jerk dialing 911, and take the steps to create the alternative responses we wish were more common, more available.

Doesn’t this feel hard to do? To practice NOT calling the police? It feels like a lot of work, doesn’t it? It is so much easier to pick up the phone and dial 911. After all, it is simple to do. You can even be anonymous. Most of the time (depending on where you live) you can be assured that someone will show up to your house or place of work or wherever within a short period of time. It is predictable. It is a known quantity. We feel “safe.” How do we even begin to conceptualize alternatives to this system? The author of the letter has developed some suggested activities that are a great beginning. I encourage anyone who is interested in this issue to take a look.

I continue to wrestle with the Cops in my head as I work on my project. I look forward to sharing my progress with you over the coming months.

Dec 28 2010

‘Chain Gang Blues’: Black Labor, Neo-Slavery, and Imprisonment

Chain Gang of Prisoners in North Carolina (1910) Engaged in Roadwork

Description of the photograph: The prisoners are quartered in the wagons, which are equipped with bunks and move from place to place as labor is utilized. The central figure is J.Z. McLawhon, county superintendent of chain gangs. The dogs are bloodhounds used for running down any attempted escapes

If you are a reader of this blog, you will notice that I regularly focus on the historical underpinnings of the PIC along with its current manifestations.  My reason for this is that it is impossible to understand what is currently taking place in terms of mass/hyper-incarceration without looking back at our history.  It is not an accident that people of color (particularly black people) are disproportionately impacted and targeted by the criminal legal system.  In addition, without a historical context, one cannot currently understand people of color’s (particularly black people’s) mistrust and fear of the American criminal legal apparatus.

Last week I shared a few songs about jail/prison based on a request that I received from a reader of this blog.  One of the songs that I mentioned was Sam Cooke’s classic “Chain Gang.”  This prompted someone to send me an e-mail asking if chain gangs were still in operation in the U.S.  The short answer to that question is YES.

In terms of prison iconography, the chain gang is one of the most recognizable and enduring images. I doubt that many people are aware that even in the 21st century chain gangs continue to exist in states across the U.S. A few years ago the insane Sheriff Joe Arpaio of Arizona started a chain gang for men convicted of DUIs and his “innovation” was to make the men wear pink clothing while toiling.

Here is a clip from a recent film called American Chain Gang that illustrates its current incarnation in the U.S.

Chain gangs are an extension of the convict lease system.  Robert Perkinson (2010) suggests that the creation of the chain gang in the early 20th century “was celebrated as a humanitarian advance” (p.151).  In his terrific book “Texas Tough,” he quotes Joseph Hyde Pratt, a convict labor advocate in North Carolina, who provides a rationale for the chain gang: “Life in the convict road camp…is more conducive to maintaining and building up the general health and manhood of the convict than when he is confined behind prison walls” (p. 151).  Proponents suggested that this was particularly so for black prisoners. According to the assistant director of the U.S. Office of Public Roads: “The negro is accustomed to outdoor occupations…[and is] experienced in manual labor…[he] does not possess the same aversion to working in public…as is characteristic of the white race” (in Texas Tough, p. 151). It is important to understand that both the convict lease system and chain gangs were forms of neo-slavery. They were created as a way to maintain black cheap (free) labor after slavery officially ended.

Perkinson (2010) explains why chain gangs gained favor especially in the South:

“[P]oliticians rallied to the chain gang because it provided public works on the cheap.  Between 1904, when state felons first began working on its roads, and 1915, convicts were primarily responsible for expanding Georgia’s surfaced road grid from two thousand to thirteen thousand miles, making its state highway system the most advanced in the South…Just as leasing had jump-started postbellum railroad construction, sugar milling, and coal mining, chain gangs helped lay the infrastructure for twentieth-century rural development.  The American South was built not only by slaves but by convicts  (p.152).”

David Oshinsky (2006) describes some of the black people in Mississippi who found themselves on the chain gang:

The chain gang took people like Walter Blake, a ‘crap-shooting little colored boy’ who received a $50 fine for illegal gambling and a $132 bill for court costs, a sum he could not possibly raise. Blake spent a full year working off his debt. A ‘negro thief’ named Julius Hoy found himself reduced to virtual peonage during his stay on the Covington County chain gang. “He is being charged 60 cents per day for board,” a local attorney noted, “and at present the fine and accumulated board amounts to approximately $89.20, and it will never be possible for him to serve out his time” (p.42).

I am currently re-reading the wonderful “Blues Legacies and Black Feminism” by Angela Davis. In the book, Davis suggests that imprisonment was one of the central themes in blues music. Davis explains that Ma Rainey’s “Chain Gang Blues’ “most incisively and realistically addressed this omnipresent fact of life in the black community (p.102).”

The judge found me guilty, the clerk he wrote it down
The judge found me guilty, the clerk he wrote it down
Just a poor gal in trouble. I know I’m country road bound

Many days of sorrow, many nights of woe
Many days of sorrow, many nights of woe
And a ball and chain, everywhere I go

Chains on my feet, padlock on my hand
Chains on my feet, padlock on my hand
It’s all on account of stealing a woman’s man

It was early this mornin’ that I had my trial
It was early this mornin’ that I had my trial
Ninety days on the country road and the judge didn’t even smile.

According to Davis (1998), “Sandra Lieb points out that the lead sheet for this song contains a penultimate verse which was omitted in the recording.”

Ain’t robbed no train, ain’t done no hanging crime
Ain’t robbed no train, ain’t done no hanging crime
But the judge said I’d be on the country road a long, long time.

Davis (1998) writes: “Black people throughout the South who listened to Rainey perform ‘Chain Gang Blues,’ and who were all too familiar with the chain gang and convict lease systems, likely would have interpreted this song as a deeply felt protest aimed at the racism and sexism of the criminal justice system.”

I share this information about Ma Rainey’s music because it is important to point out that as black people we have always RESISTED our oppression. This is particularly important to remember at this juncture in our history when what we need is a mass movement to resist the hyper-incarceration of black people. We need to remember our history in order to change our current conditions.

One of the most important parts of Blues music is improvisation. Singers and performers take songs and then interpret them for themselves. They often change lyrics and therefore the meaning of the songs. Here is Kokomo Arnold’s 1935 interpretation of Chain Gang Blues. Listen closely to see how he reinterprets the original lyrics as performed by Ma Rainey.

Let’s take some inspiration from our past to affect change in the present…

Dec 28 2010

The Single Dumbest Article I Have Read about Hip Hop & Incarceration…

On the heels of the news that rapper Ja Rule has accepted a plea deal for a two-year prison sentence for illegally possessing a gun, David Dennis wrote an article about the fact that for Ja Rule “jail isn’t what it used to be.”

My first pet peeve is that people in this country have no idea what the difference is between jail and prison. If you are in jail, you are there pre-adjudication and if you are in prison you have been convicted of a crime. Can we please get this straight people? For real… People in jail are being detained before or during consideration of their case. People in prison have been found GUILTY of some crime.

Now that this is off my chest, I can return to Mr. Dennis’s article. His point seems to be that pre-2005, rappers who were arrested could expect to increase their “street cred” and as such their careers were less likely to be adversely affected by conflicts with the law. Today, according to Dennis, “getting arrested for a rapper is the same as getting arrested for a teacher, janitor or politician. It’s a bad move.”

His explanation for this sea change is as follows:

The fact is, and please don’t be disappointed by this spoiler alert, Hip-Hop is mainstream. The genre is a multi-billion dollar industry that’s much more integrated into the American lore than it was 15 years ago. When 2Pac went to jail, he faced album pushbacks and a couple of lost movie roles. T.I. went to jail and he lost endorsements, movie roles and likely millions of dollars in other opportunities. When T.I. went to jail for smoking weed in his car, he was seen as an idiot.

I find this thoroughly unpersuasive. Hip hop is mainstream today but it was also mainstream in 2000. Using T.I as an example to prove this point also makes little sense to me. Sure he lost movie roles and endorsements during his year-long incarceration in 2009 but he was still in the top 20 rap earners pulling in $8 million just $3 million behind Snoop Dog who wasn’t incarcerated that year. He was listed as the #16 top earning rapper of 2009. Dennis then informs the reader that when T.I. went back to jail this year, “he was seen as an idiot.” I have no idea if this is true or not but I would not attribute that view (if it exists) to the mainstreaming of hip hop. I would attribute it instead to the fact that Americans are pretty unforgiving as a rule and that our culture is a punishment-oriented one. Those are larger cultural forces that have little to do with hip hop.

Next Dennis takes on Ja Rule’s latest misfortune:

Which brings us to Hip-Hop’s most recent inmate-to-be, Ja Rule. When the news broke that Ja was sentenced to two years in jail, nobody really cared. It was just another sign that Ja’s career was over. The former star had it all at one point: starring in movies, multi-platinum albums and writing melodies for J. Lo. A poorly-executed beef with 50 Cent and a drastic decline in music quality resulted in an epic career homicide. There was a time when a rapper’s arrest could have provided a shot in the arm for a career. While it’s clear that there isn’t much that will give Ja any level of relevance, jail definitely won’t do the trick. Instead, it’s just the final casket close to a career that ended years ago.

Well this is supremely unhelpful and amazingly snarky. I like snarky, do not get me wrong. However, in this case, it seems warranted to ask why Dennis didn’t bother to address the fact that black rappers and athletes seem to be disproportionately targeted by the criminal legal system with weapons violations.

One of the most popular posts that I have written is titled “Why Does It Seem That Black Men Are The Only Ones Jailed For Owning Guns?‘” In the post, I reference the case of Plaxico Burress who is currently behind bars for illegally carrying a gun. Plaxico makes the point in an interview that he was sent to prison “for owning a gun” and that he didn’t “commit a crime he broke a law.” This bears repeating. Many of us are law breakers (how many of us have jaywalked?) but we are not “criminals” and we should definitely not find ourselves behind bars.

If it is true that “nobody seemed to care” that Ja Rule was heading to prison, this seems to me again more a function of the fact that the entire culture has become desensitized to mass incarceration. It hardly even registers for the general public. What’s one more black man going to jail when there are over 850,000 of them there already? Besides didn’t Dennis spend several words informing us that Ja Rule was already washed up before his latest misfortune?

Wesley Snipes was also recently imprisoned for tax evasion and I don’t think that many people were exercised over that. When you are out of the public eye for a while, you are just another black man headed to the pen. This doesn’t warrant much interest in the culture. That is tragic but true. So again this is not specific to hip hop.

Dennis’s reference to a “final casket close” for Ja Rule’s career seems particularly gratuitous and morbid as this man heads to prison. Did Ja Rule steal Dennis’s milkshake? What did he do to this man? He ends his article with these words:

He took to his Twitter: “minor setback for a major comeback”. If only it were that easy. Jail means it’s over for Ja.

It’s a shame that the clink isn’t the career boost it used to be. But there is a bright side: we’re all worried about the influence Hip-Hop has on our kids. Granted, our children’s idols going to jail as often as they go to the club isn’t the best-case scenario, but having these stars come out of it sans millions and testifying to the fact that the experience was horrible, will act as much more of a deterrent than the “yeah, I served that time without a problem” attitude of the Hip-Hop Medieval Times. Maybe Ja Rule can find solace in his ability to act as an example for the youth. Especially once he realizes he’s unlikely to find it in hopes of a reborn music career.

Look is it unseemly for Ja Rule to tweet “minor setback for a major comeback” to his fans on his way to serving a two-year prison sentence? Sure. But give the man a break! False bravado is not a crime otherwise half of the world’s male population would be behind bars. Let’s be real about this.

Then Dennis brings in the “children.” Lord help us.

It is well-known that I have no patience for the narratives that some rappers construct when they leave jail or prison. I have written about how damaging I felt Lil’ Wayne’s portrayal of his time behind bars was. I don’t want rappers or anyone else to glamorize prison because I know that prisons are actually brutal, oppressive, and counter-productive. Telling the truth in this instance matters.

If Mr. Dennis was going to write about hip hop and incarceration, I wish that he would have taken the time to present a cogent and most importantly well-researched article. Here’s what I would like to know:

1. What are the sociological reasons that black and brown rappers find themselves behind bars?
2. Do white rock and roll performers find themselves behind bars at the same rate? If no, why not?
3. What are the re-entry challenges for rappers once they are released from jail or prison? Is T.I. typical in terms of the fact that he found himself returning to prison less than a year after being released?
4. Are the prison experiences of these rappers similar or different from the general population of people who go to prison? What accounts for the differences or similarities?

I could go on with a series of questions that would have provided more light on this topic than we got from Mr. Dennis’s effort. Perhaps someone else will write the article that I hope to read on this subject soon….

Dec 27 2010

Michael Vick, Barack Obama, and the ‘War on Drugs’

First allow me to stipulate that I believe that sending Michael Vick to prison for even one day for dogfighting was a travesty. Many dog lovers are likely to find it impossible to read another word of this post. I understand. I am consistent about the fact that I do not think that prison solves anything rather incarceration is always harmful and counter-productive.

I read today that according to Peter King (sportswriter) President Obama reached out to the Eagles’ owner, Jeff Lurie, to thank him for giving Michael Vick a second chance after his incarceration:

King tweeted last night that “Obama called Eagle owner Jeffrey Lurie to praise the Eagles for giving Vick a chance. Said too many prisoners never get fair 2d chance.”

It is heartening to see the President acknowledge the importance of “second chances” for former prisoners. Yet here’s the rub of this for me. I would prefer it if President Obama and Attorney General Holder would start to dismantle the prison industrial complex as a whole. President Obama has it within his executive power to make several changes that would dramatically decrease the numbers of people who are incarcerated every year in the U.S. He can start by ending the detrimental and destructive “War on Drugs.”

Over the weekend, the New York Times reported that the U.S. “War on Drugs” is being fought in over 60 countries. The WikiLeaks cables paint a scary picture of a ubiquitous and hegemonic U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration:

The Drug Enforcement Administration has been transformed into a global intelligence organization with a reach that extends far beyond narcotics, and an eavesdropping operation so expansive it has to fend off foreign politicians who want to use it against their political enemies, according to secret diplomatic cables.

The reach of the DEA is illustrated by the fact that the agency “now has 87 offices in 63 countries and close partnerships with governments that keep the Central Intelligence Agency at arm’s length.”

The costs of this so-called drug war are immeasurable in terms of human suffering. There are other costs that are more quantifiable and those are addressed in the infographic below:

A few weeks ago, Michelle Alexander published an essay in the Nation titled “Obama's Drug War.” In it, she addresses the realities and consequences of the current ‘War on Drugs’:

More than 30 million people have been arrested since 1982, when President Reagan turned Nixon’s rhetorical “war against drugs” into a literal war against poor people of color. During the past few decades, African-American men, in particular, have been arrested at stunning rates, primarily for nonviolent, relatively minor drug offenses—despite data indicating that people of all races use and sell drugs at remarkably similar rates.

In some states, 80 to 90 percent of all drug offenders admitted to prison have been African-American, and when released they find themselves ushered into a parallel universe where they are stripped of many of the rights supposedly won during the civil rights movement. People labeled felons are often denied the right to vote and legally discriminated against in employment, housing, access to education and public benefits—relegated to a second-class status for life simply because they were once caught with drugs.

The following chart provides a visual representation of the number of drug arrests in the U.S. over time.

I have previously written about how drug use was handled in the U.S. from the 1930s through the mid-1970s. This was not ideal but it did not criminalize millions of Americans in the way that the current War on Drugs has.

For those interested in ideas about how to reform the current system, the Nation recently published an excellent special issue about how to rebalance U.S. drug policy.

President Obama needs to eschew symbolic gestures like the phone call to Jeff Lurie. He needs to permanently free millions of Americans of all races from the scourge that is the U.S. Drug War. This momentum is difficult to turn back, I know. I agree with Michelle Alexander that it is going to take a mass multi-racial movement to change the current trajectory. In other words, we have to MAKE the politicians do the right thing.

Dec 27 2010

Infographic: Costs of Incarceration and Execution

I won’t keep harping on how much I love data visualization because I am sure that this has become supremely boring for everyone.

I recently came across this infographic illustrating the various costs related to incarceration (of course the human toll is immeasurable).

According to this infographic:

It costs an average of $3.42 a day to keep a prisoner on probation, and $7.47 to keep that same prisoner on parole. Compare that with how costly it is to keep prisoners locked up; it costs an average of $78.95 each day to keep a criminal behind bars.

Now, depending on the crime, you might think that cost is worth it to keep dangerous criminals off the street. Consider this, though: It costs more to keep someone in prison for one day that it costs to keep that person on parole or probation for 22.

It costs $86.08 to provide the drugs needed to perform a single lethal injection. Overall, executions are extremely costly to the states that perform them.

The average execution in California, for instance, costs $90,000. In Washington state, this cost stands at an even higher $700,000.

The death penalty has been even costlier in New Jersey. The state pays $253 million to house all of its death-row inmates each year. That’s because, as of the writing of this story, New Jersey had suspended its executions. Of course, it still has to do something with those death-row inmates.

States, though, aren’t cutting back on the amount of money they are spending on new prisons. Eight states, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, Missouri, Montana, Nevada, Oregon and Wyoming, have spent 88 percent of their additional corrections spending since 1983 on prisons.

Overall, based on 2007 data, one in every 31 adults in the United States is under correctional control. Georgia has the dubious distinction of leading the nation in the percentage of its residents under correctional control, one out of every 13.

Other states aren’t far behind. They include Idaho, one in 18; Texas, one in 22; Massachusetts, one in 24; Ohio, one in 25; and Minnesota, Indiana and Louisiana, all of which stand at one in 26.

The states on the other end of the spectrum include New Hampshire, with one out of every 88 adults under correctional control; Maine, one in 81; West Virginia, one in 68; Utah, one in 64; and North Dakota, one in 63.

About 80 percent of prisoners work while in prison to offset the costs associated with housing and feeding them. Most often, these prisoners work on farms and gardens to produce their own food or perform renovations and repairs on prisons. They also serve food to their fellow inmates, maintain the grounds and participate in their prison’s sanitation and recycling processes.

Click here for the full article and to see a larger version of the infographic.

Dec 27 2010

Hallelujah: Jeremy Marks is Out of Jail!

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote about the case of Jeremy Marks.

Jeremy, a high school senior, was arrested and charged with “attempted lynching” for using his cell phone to capture an altercation between a police officer and one of his classmates. For over 8 months now, young Jeremy has been behind bars because his family could not afford to post his bail.

Thankfully, a good Samaritan posted Jeremy’s bail last week so that he could spend Christmas with his family.

A Google engineer from San Francisco heard about Marks’ plight, in an exclusive story by Katharine Russ for LA Weekly that created widespread outrage. Here’s why the Google engineer, Neil Fraser, posted $50,000 to get the 18-year-old out of the tough, adult, Pitchess Detention Center:

Neil Fraser is tentatively slated to appear Sunday, Dec. 26 on MSNBC to talk about why he helped a stranger — a boy with a troubled background whose parents transferred him to Verdugo Hills to help him get a fresh start. Fraser also put $1,500 toward Marks’ defense, which was matched by Google.

In Mr. Fraser’s own words:

Short version of the story:

1. Cop catches 15 year old kid smoking at a bus stop in LA.
2. Cop beats up kid, slams his head into the bus and uses pepper spray.
3. More cops arrive. Kid is released without charge.
4. During the incident, several bystanders start recording videos of what the cop is doing.
5. Cops pick Jeremy Marks, a 17 year old student, and arrest him at gunpoint (destroying the evidence on his phone in the process).
6. Since photographing police is still legal in California, they charge him instead with “attempted lynching of a police officer”.
7. The prosecutor makes an offer: plead guilty and he’ll only serve seven years. He declines.
8. Jeremy is thrown in jail, bail is set at an extortionate amount his family can’t afford.
9. He sits in jail for seven months awaiting trial.
10. I hear about the case on Reddit and provide the collateral to get Jeremy out of jail and back to his family for christmas.

First a word to Mr. Fraser… God Bless YOU for stepping up in this way on behalf of a young black man. This gives me hope that it absolutely is possible to build multi-racial coalitions for social change and justice.

Next a word about the issue of bail in our current criminal legal system. I do not think that it can be overstated how UNFAIR the bail system is in this country. If you have resources you get out of jail, if you do not you stay in jail. This is patently and wholly UNFAIR. Recently Human Rights Watch took this issue on in New York City by releasing the results of a two-year study. Some of the study’s key findings are below:

87 percent of defendants whose bail was set at $1,000 or less were jailed following their first court appearance for arraignment and remained incarcerated for an average of almost 16 days. Their crimes: shoplifting, prostitution, turnstile jumping, marijuana, possession of small quantities of drugs, trespassing. None were violent, and none involved weapons. In effect, these people served their sentences before ever being tried, much less convicted, since in many of the cases, the sentences eventually imposed would likely have been less than the time they spent at Rikers Island. These non-felony defendants awaiting trial constitute approximately one quarter of the population on Rikers.

According to Jamie Fellner, senior counsel at the U.S. Program at Human Watch who conducted the study and wrote the report, “Bail punishes the poor because they cannot afford to buy their pretrial freedom.” Fellner found that judges sitting in Criminal Court tend to set bail at amounts that are unaffordable for indigent defendants.

“The pretrial incarceration of persons presumed innocent of minor crimes is a disproportionate and needless curtailment of liberty that is difficult to square with fundamental notions of fairness,” Fellner’s report concludes.

While the report did not provide a breakdown for the races of people affected by the bail policy it noted, “Although blacks and Hispanics combined constitute only 51 percent of New York City’s population population, aggressive law enforcement in minority neighborhoods has led to them comprising 82.4 percent of all arrestees and a similar percentage of all criminal defendants.”

It also cites city Department of Correction figures that 88 percent of people held on bail of $1,000 or less are black and Hispanic.

How can one avoid spending time in jail if you are poor in NYC? That’s simple… Plead Guilty. From the HRW study:

The only way a defendant charged with a misdemeanor or violation such as disorderly conduct can get out of jail quickly when a judge sets bail he or she cannot raise, is to plead guilty. Pleading guilty can mean walking out of the courthouse — particularly if this is the first person’s first arrest — since many of the minor offenses do not carry any jail time, and the defendant has already served 24 hours by the time he or she appears in court. Others pleading guilty may get an Adjournment in Contemplation of Dismissal, meaning if they don’t get arrested again within the next six months their case is automatically dismissed and sealed or they may receive a conditional or unconditional discharge.

Meanwhile, the defendant who asserts the presumption of innocence remains behind bars. Of the 19,137 non-felony defendants arrested in 2008 whose bail was $1,000 or less, 87 percent were not able to post that and had no one else who could. This helps explain why 99.6 percent of the convictions for misdemeanors are by guilty plea.

In the Jeremy Marks case, because his family could not afford his bail, he has already spent 8 MONTHS in a terrible jail. Remember that he has not been convicted of a thing.

The prosecutors still want this young man to plead guilty and serve 32 months in prison. This is pure INSANITY and his family should take their chances in court. Hopefully others will take Mr. Fraser’s lead and will contribute to help defray some of the court costs associated with this debacle to allow this young man to clear his name and save his life. This is an injustice that the state of California should not be able to get away with. Kudos to L.A. Weekly by the way for shining a bright spotlight on this travesty of injustice.

Dec 26 2010

Sunday Poem: Observations at a Poetry Reading, Women’s Detention Center


by Michelle Parkerson

Bitch Butch Black

women all
Ladies in waiting
for sentences or
Look through bars for eyes

Skepticism as a way of life
Crime as survival
Prison as the payback
Hard knocks make hard hearts that don’t beat to art

Light, angels of mercy
come to read you free
confront a wall of blank stares
that know too well do-good haste

The griots call: Do our words touch you?
The women’s response: Do you care?

Dec 24 2010

Rosa Parks: Criminal Legal Reformer & Practitioner of Transformative Justice

Something needs to be said…about Rosa Parks…other than her feet…were tired…Lots of people…on that bus…and many before…and since…had tired feet…lots of people…still do…they just don’t know…where to plant them… [From Harvest (for Rosa Parks) by Nikki Giovanni]

Chances are that most people who read this will have heard the name ‘Rosa Parks.’ She is remembered for her courageous refusal to give up her seat on a Montgomery bus in 1955. This act of resistance sparked the Montgomery bus boycott which launched a little known minister named Martin Luther King Jr. into national attention and prominence.

Yet Mrs. Parks’s life is misunderstood as is her over 60 years of activism. Chances are that if you know something about Mrs. Parks, you may have heard that the reason she refused to give up her seat was because “her feet were tired.” This mythology or urban legend has been perpetuated by politicians and others over the years as a way to de-radicalize the movement for black freedom in the U.S.

Interestingly the mythology was also abetted by organizers of the boycott themselves who wanted to have a “poster child” for the movement who would be beyond reproach. Prior to Mrs. Parks, 15 year old Claudette Colvin as well as other Montgomery women had refused to give up their seats and were subsequently jailed. However movement leaders worried about their backgrounds and decided against launching a campaign on their behalf. The concern was that these young women would not engender sufficient public sympathy and outrage. Former Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) organizer Andrew Young explained: “She was not the first but when she was thrown in jail it said to all of Montgomery that none of us is safe (Theoharis, p.117).”

Downplaying Mrs. Parks’ previous history of organizing and political engagement was seen as important to the movement. By scrubbing her record and downplaying her radicalism, organizers of the boycott were able to portray Mrs. Parks as a non-threatening and more importantly for the time “respectable” black middle-aged woman. Mrs. Parks’ true self had to take a back seat to the mythology.

Mrs. Parks spoke to this herself:

“I didn’t tell anyone my feet were hurting. It was just popular. I suppose because they wanted to give some excuse other than the fact that I didn’t want to be pushed around…And I had been working for a long time…a number of years in fact – to be treated as a human being with dignity not only for myself, but all those who were being mistreated. (Interview of Rosa Parks by John H. Britton for the Civil Rights Documentation Project, September 28, 1967)”

Rosa Louise McCauley was born in 1913 in Alabama. Her grandfather and mother were Garveyites. Marcus Garvey was a black leader who was a believer in black self-defense and self-determination. In fact when Klan violence worsened in Tuskegee Alabama when Rosa was a little girl, her grandfather would sit up all night on his porch with his rifle. In 1932, she married political activist Raymond Parks who was already organizing to free the Scottsboro Boys (I hope to write something about this case in the near future).

Mrs. Parks was a radical, in the best and truest sense of the word. She was a big supporter of Malcolm X and Robert Williams. She eschewed the concept of gradualism. In 1967, she said “I don’t believe in gradualism or that whatever should be done for the better should take forever to do.” Mrs. Parks had been an activist for two decades before the bus boycott. She had been the secretary of her NAACP chapter and was considered its best investigator. Below is an example of the type of cases that Ms. Parks investigated over 10 years before the Montgomery Bus Boycott:

In 1944 Taylor, a 24-year-old mother and sharecropper, was walking home from an evening of singing and praying at the Rock Hill Holiness Church in Abbeville, Ala., when she was kidnapped by seven white men with shotguns and knives, raped and left for dead.

The Montgomery branch of the NAACP dispatched its best investigator and organizer, Rosa Parks — yes, Rosa Parks — to Abbeville. Despite a confession, corroborating testimony, affidavits from at least three eyewitnesses and overwhelming evidence, two all-white, all-male grand juries refused to issue any indictments.

After this incident, Mrs. Parks helped form the Committee for Equal Justice for Mrs. Recy Taylor. According to Jeanne Theoharis (2009):

“Using the networks built through the Scottsboro case, the committee reached out to labor unions, African American groups and women’s organizations to draw attention to the case and to pressure Governor Chancey Sparks to convene a special grand jury.”

Another case that animated Mrs. Parks was that of Jeremiah Reeves, a 16 year old black young man who was having an affair with a white woman.

“When a neighbor discovered the couple, the white woman cried rape. The Montgomery NAACP worked for years to free Reeves. Parks personally corresponded with him and helped get his poetry published in the Birmingham World. But on March 28, 1958, Reeves was executed. ‘Sometimes it was very difficult to keep going,’ Parks admitted, ‘when all our work seemed to be in vain.’ (Theoharis, p. 120).”

Mrs. Parks called her own arrest on the Montgomery bus in 1955 “one of the worst days of my life.” She explained: “There were other people on the bus whom I knew. But when I was arrested, not one of them came to my defense. I felt very much alone.” Mrs. Parks was organizing for the rights of black people in the criminal legal system even while she herself was jailed.

“One of the women in her cell had been in jail for nearly two months. The woman, who had picked up a hatchet against her boyfriend after he struck her, had no money to post bail and no way to let her family know where she was. Parks smuggled out a piece of paper with the woman’s brother’s phone number. ‘The first thing I did the morning after I went to jail,’ Parks recalled, ‘was to call the number the woman in the cell with me had written down on that crumpled piece of paper.’ A few days later, she saw the woman on the street, out of jail and looking much better. (Theoharis, p.124)”

For those who are interested in better understanding what Mrs. Parks and her family endured during the Bus Boycott, I strongly recommend Douglas Brinkley’s book, Rosa Parks: A Life. It chronicles the death threats, lost jobs and income, and ultimately the jealousy of some of the black ministers towards Mrs. Parks. Ultimately, she and her family moved to Detroit after the Boycott ended in 1957.

In Detroit, Mrs. Parks continued her activism on behalf of human rights. Particularly interesting to me is her work in addressing the case of Joanne Little. Mrs. Parks was one of the founders of the Joanne Little Defense Committee in Detroit. “The mission statement of the Detroit organization affirmed the right of women to defend themselves against sexual attackers (Theoharis, p.131)”

According to Jeanne Theoharis (2009):

“Parks also campaigned vigorously on behalf of Gary Tyler, a sixteen-year old black teenager who had been wrongfully convicted of killing a thirteen-year old white boy. The youngest person ever given the death penalty, Tyler was riding a school bus when it was attacked by a white mob angry that schools were being desegregated in Louisiana. Police boarded the bus and pulled Tyler off for allegedly shooting a boy outside the bus, even though no gun was found on the bus. Parks gave the keynote address at a packed meeting in Detroit in June 1976 on behalf of Tyler and worked to see his conviction overturned. However, Tyler was never freed (pp.131-132).”

I want to conclude with an anecdote that I believe encapsulates how Mrs. Parks saw and lived in the world. In September 1994, an 81 year old Rosa Parks was mugged and beaten by a black man in Detroit. Here is how Bob Herbert of the New York Times commented on the incident:

Early last week came the astonishing news that a black man had put his hands on Rosa Parks. Some moral cipher, reeking of alcohol, had invaded the home of the 81-year-old mother of the civil rights movement, had pummeled her until she gave up her money and then fled, leaving her bruised and shaken but no less stoic and dignified than in 1955 when a bus driver in Montgomery, Ala., told her to get up and give her seat to a white person and she softly replied no, there will be no more of that.

Notice even in Herbert’s column that he calls Mrs. Parks “the mother of civil rights movement,” a title she never asked for and didn’t feel she really embodied. Anyway I digress… Herbert went on to write:

We are in the dark night of the post-civil rights era. The wars against segregation have been won, but we are lost. With the violence and degradation into which so many of our people have fallen, we have disgraced the legacy of Rosa Parks.

Instead of succumbing to hopelessness and rage, Mrs. Parks decided to take a different approach. She asked that “people not read too much into the attack” and prayed for the man “and the conditions that have made him this way.” As Jeanne Theoharis writes, “To the end, Parks remained focused on changing the conditions that limited black people’s ability to flourish (p.133).” I would add that Parks was a practitioner and proponent of transformative justice.

I will end as I began with the words of the amazing Nikki Giovanni from her poem “Harvest:”

They always tell us one…person doesn’t make any difference…but it seems to me…something…should be done…In all these years…it’s strange…but maybe not…nobody asks…about my life…If I have children…why I moved to Detroit…what I think…about what we tried…to do…somehow…you want to say things…are better…somehow…they are…not in many ways…People…older people…are afraid…younger people…are too…I really don’t know…where it will end…Our people…can break…your heart…so can other…people…I just think…it makes a difference…what one person does…young people forget that…what one person does…makes a difference.