Jan 31 2011

In Britain, Young Prisoners Resort to Bartering for Fresh Fruit…

When I wrote about prison food in December, I had no idea that a lot of other people were also interested in the topic. Given that this is the case, I will continue to write about the history and current incarnation of prison food.

Today, Fox News reports that the food in British youth prisons is so terrible that young prisoners are resorting to bartering for fresh fruit.

Fresh fruit is in such high demand in Britain’s youth detention facilities that teenage inmates treat it like a currency, a charity claimed Monday.

The food served in the UK’s Young Offenders Institutes is of such poor quality that bags of fruit sold in prison shops are in such high demand that inmates are being bullied into buying them and handing them over to older criminals, said The Howard League for Penal Reform.

“Hungry children in prisons told us they bully each other for an apple — yet we know that food is a foundation for success, with studies repeatedly revealing a significant link between diet, behavior and academic performance,” said Frances Crook, director of the charity.

This is an indictment of these institutions and a violation of basic human rights. The prison authorities in the UK should be challenged on this.

Here’s more from the report:

It conducted interviews with over 50 young offenders aged between 15 and 18 across three institutions and consulted a youth offending team. Weekly menus from nine facilities were also examined, and it was concluded that the prisons were not spending enough on food for inmates.

“We’re feeding our most troublesome children with high-calorie, low-nutrient food that we know will make their behavior worse and put their health at risk,” Crook added.

A Ministry of Justice spokesperson told NewsCore, “We ensure that the food provided to young people is balanced and meets nutritional guidelines,” adding that the establishments were inspected regularly by education and prison watchdogs and that neither body raised any concerns over the quality of food.

This statement from the Ministry of Justice spokesperson has a “Bagdad Bob” feel to it for me. It doesn’t pass the smell test. Others need to follow up with more investigations of this matter.

Jan 31 2011

Announcing Suspension Stories: A New Resource to Dismantle the School-to-Prison Pipeline

Poster by Caitlin Ostrow-Seidler

I am privileged to regularly work with some of the most inspiring and dedicated youth leaders on the planet. Over the past few months, I have had the distinct pleasure to collaborate once again with the young women of the Rogers Park Young Women's Action Team as they conducted participatory action research about harsh school disciplinary policies and their connection to pushing students into the prison pipeline. I have had the incredible good fortune to be an ally to these amazing young people for 8 years now.

The result of their hard work can be found in this most incredible new website called Suspension Stories. The site includes survey research, art, audio, video as well as other relevant resources and tools. I know that the young women dearly hope that others who are organizing against school pushout and the school to prison pipeline will find value in the results of YWAT’s hard work.

There are many people besides the young women of YWAT who contributed to making this initiative happen. That list is incredibly long and we send a big thank you to everyone.

Finally as a point of personal privilege, I would like to especially recognize Lillian Matanmi for her leadership on this project. I met Lillian when she was just a freshman in high school. Over the years, she has grown into a confident and competent leader. She was the driver of this project and without her it would simply not have happened. I know that all of the members of YWAT agree with me on this. Thank you Lillian for your passion and commitment to social justice. I am in awe of you.

Please take a minute to visit the Suspension Stories site. Be sure to leave some feedback for the girls to let them know how the site might be useful to your organizing and work.

Jan 31 2011

Urgent Call to Action: Justice For Tiawanda Moore

Last weekend, I wrote about Charles Drew who is facing 15 years in prison for recording his arrest. I linked to a New York Times article that included the story of 20 year old Tiawanda Moore who is also facing 15 years in prison for recording a police encounter. The Times reports that “Ms. Moore, whose trial is tentatively scheduled for Feb. 7 in Cook County Criminal Court, is accused of using her Blackberry to record two Internal Affairs investigators who spoke to her inside Police Headquarters while she filed a sexual harassment complaint last August against another police officer.”

I will quote extensively from the Times story to provide more specific details and context about Ms. Moore’s case:

Ms. Moore’s case is more complicated and “disturbing,” said her lawyer, Robert W. Johnson, who is representing her pro bono.

Ms. Moore lived with her boyfriend at the time of the incident and theirs was a stormy relationship, filled with fights and visits by the police, Mr. Johnson said. Last July, the boyfriend called the police and said he wanted Ms. Moore out of his house. But by the time the police arrived, Mr. Johnson said, the couple had calmed down. Still, one of the officers talked to Ms. Moore upstairs while his partner interviewed the boyfriend.

On Aug. 18, Ms. Moore and her boyfriend went to Police Headquarters to file a complaint with Internal Affairs about the officer who had talked to her alone. Ms. Moore said the officer had fondled her and left his personal telephone number, which she handed over to the investigators.

Ms. Moore said the investigators tried to talk her out of filing a complaint, saying the officer had a good record and that they could “guarantee” that he would not bother her again.

“They keep giving her the run-around, basically trying to discourage her from making a report,” Mr. Johnson said. “Finally, she decides to record them on her cellphone to show how they’re not helping her.”

The investigators discovered that she was recording them and she was arrested and charged with two counts of eavesdropping, Mr. Johnson said. But he added that the law contains a crucial exception. If citizens have “reasonable suspicion” that a crime is about to be committed against them, they may obtain evidence by recording it.

“I contend that the Internal Affairs investigators were committing the crime of official misconduct in preventing her from filing a complaint,” Mr. Johnson said. “She’s young. She had no idea what she was getting into when she went in there to make a simple complaint. It’s just a shame when the people watching the cops aren’t up to it.”

Days later, accompanied by Mr. Johnson, Ms. Moore returned to Internal Affairs and was able to file a full complaint. There is a continuing investigation of Ms. Moore’s charges against the officer, a Police Department spokesman said.

Meanwhile, Ms. Moore is in Cook County Jail after another domestic dispute with her boyfriend, Mr. Johnson said.

In a tearful telephone interview from jail, Ms. Moore said that when she went to Internal Affairs she was only trying to make sure no other women suffered at the hands of the officer.

“I’m scared,” she said. “I don’t know what’s going to happen now. I don’t want to be in jail. I want to make my parents happy and proud of me.”

I’ve spent the past few days reaching out to colleagues to gather more information about Ms. Moore’s case in the hopes of organizing a show of support for her trial now tentatively scheduled on February 7th. I have also been in contact with Ms. Moore’s attorney. I am pleased to join with my friend and co-founder of the Chicago Taskforce on Violence against Girls and Young Women, Melissa Spatz to launch the following call to action:

1. You can read the entire New York Times article here to familiarize yourself with some of the issues at play.

2. Complete this petition.

3. E-mail chitaskforce@gmail.com if you are interested in potentially attending Tiawanda’s trial. We will let you know once the trail date is confirmed. The State’s Attorney has asked for another continuance of the case as of June 8th. Ms. Moore is asking that the state provide her with a TIMELY trial if it is in fact going to prosecute her. The State keeps postponing the start of the trial.

Jan 30 2011

On Solitary Confinement and Charles Dickens…

Artwork by Billy Dee

In 1842, Charles Dickens toured the United States. He subsequently cataloged his experiences in American Notes for General Circulation.

During his trip, he visited Eastern State Penitentiary which was located in Philadelphia. He wrote about his day-long visit and one of his most famous passages focused on the effects of solitary confinement at the prison:

The system here, is rigid, strict, and hopeless solitary confinement. I believe it, in its effects, to be cruel and wrong. In its intention, I am well convinced that it is kind, humane, and meant for reformation; but I am persuaded that those who devised this system of Prison Discipline, and those benevolent gentlemen who carry it into execution, do not know what it is that they are doing. I believe that very few men are capable of estimating the immense amount of torture and agony which this dreadful punishment, prolonged for years, inflicts upon the sufferers; and in guessing at it myself, and in reasoning from what I have seen written upon their faces, and what to my certain knowledge they feel within, I am only the more convinced that there is a depth of terrible endurance in it which none but the sufferers themselves can fathom, and which no man has a right to inflict upon his fellow-creature. I hold this slow and daily tampering with the mysteries of the brain, to be immeasurably worse than any torture of the body: and because its ghastly signs and tokens are not so palpable to the eye and sense of touch as scars upon the flesh; because its wounds are not upon the surface, and it extorts few cries that human ears can hear; therefore I the more denounce it, as a secret punishment which slumbering humanity is not roused up to stay.

In just a few words, Dickens sums up what I cannot imagine anyone being able to convey any better. Let these words roll off your tongue: “a secret punishment which slumbering humanity is not roused up to stay.” Imprint the image in your brain. Sear the concept in your heart. I wanted to share this passage because it is instructive to the current debates that we are having about whether solitary confinement is a form of torture. Dickens’s eloquent words provide support for the view that there is no question that it is.

Jan 29 2011

Andrew Cuomo’s Very Short Career as a Prison Reformer Comes To An End…

According to the New York Times, newly sworn-in Governor Andrew Cuomo is already scaling back his plans to close several New York prisons.

Cuomo came into office talking tough about closing prisons in his state:

In his Jan. 5 address to the Legislature, Mr. Cuomo said that “an incarceration program is not an employment program.”

“If people need jobs, let’s get people jobs,” he added. “Don’t put other people in prison to give some people jobs. Don’t put other people in juvenile justice facilities to give some people jobs. That’s not what this state is all about, and that has to end this session.”

On Friday, his administration had little to say publicly on the matter.

What happened you might ask… Well once again, let’s turn to the New York Times:

Republicans have certainly made their feelings clear about any potential closings.

“We recognize that this is going to be a tough budget with real cuts, and we just hope that these cuts are equally distributed around the state,” said Senator Thomas W. Libous, a Binghamton Republican and the deputy majority leader.

“I do think the governor understands the prison issue,” he added. “I know he understands the prison issue is always a sensitive one to upstate.”

Why is closing prisons a “sensitive” issue in Upstate New York?

Senator Betty Little, a Republican whose district includes much of the Adirondacks, said the economic effects had to be considered. “The area I represent is northern New York, it’s very rural, and we built an economy around these facilities, first of all because no one else wanted them in their neighborhoods and because the land was cheap,” she said. “Hopefully when they look at closure, they look at economic impact. I’m not trying to create inmates to keep these places open, but we need to look at the whole picture.”

I guess that Governor Cuomo was wrong… Prisons ARE in fact employment programs…

Jan 29 2011

Prison Women: Another National Geographic Documentary Series Premieres in February

Again I can’t vouch for how good these documentaries will be but here is the information nonetheless. On Tuesday, National Geographic will premiere a documentary series called Hard Time. A couple of weeks later two documentaries about women in prison (as prisoners and workers) will premiere too.

Prison Women: Females on Guard
Sunday, February 13 at 8PM ET/PT

More women than ever are working as guards in Miami’s roughest prisons, putting their lives in danger guarding south Florida’s most dangerous criminals. However, taking the job means walking into a world ruled by power, sex and violence. Our cameras step inside the 50-year-old Pretrial Detention Center, where female guards confront daily brawls and outbursts. We’ll meet a recent graduate from the training academy as she begins working at the facility, a veteran officer trying to curb sexual harassment by inmates against female officers and a young officer scrambling to secure her floor after an inmate was stabbed.

HARD TIME: Female Offenders
Tuesday, February 15 at 10PM ET/PT

Women are the fastest-growing prison population in America, and among the toughest to manage. At the Ohio Reformatory for Women (ORW) outside of Columbus, “pseudo-families” emerge instead of gangs. Inmate Dorie Terrell heads a family 30 members strong. She claims to offer guidance and food to her girls, but the prison sees her role as a potentially dangerous abuse of power. When Heather O’Brien arrived at ORW, she was almost nine months pregnant. See the many challenges she faces while raising her daughter in the prison nursery.

Jan 28 2011

Making the Invisible Visible: Popular Education about the PIC

According to a recent study titled Children on the Outside: Voicing the Pain and Human Costs of Parental Incarceration:

African American children are seven and Latino children two and half times more likely to have a parent in prison than white children. The estimated risk of parental imprisonment for white children by the age of 14 is one in 25, while for black children it is one in four by the same age.

The magnitude of this crisis often feels impossible to convey to the general public. Yet in order to create a successful mass movement to dismantle the prison industrial complex, we must engage thousands of people across all racial, class, gender, religious backgrounds. How do we do this?

Over the years, I have relied on popular education as an important component of organizing for social change. One of the main reasons that I create so many curricula is to find useful ways to disseminate knowledge that might lead to future action. I am privileged to be a member of the Chicago PIC Teaching Collective. The Teaching Collective is an all-volunteer group that organizes interactive workshops, film screenings, and trainings which aim to inspire action. We also produce educational materials and resources. We provide opportunities for youth and adults to explore issues related to mass incarceration/hyperincarceration. We focus on practical steps to inspire, inform, and enable action, and on how to develop workable alternatives.

The PIC Collective officially launched last fall and has 20 members. We’ve been working together on a couple of projects over the past few weeks. The first involves creating a 3 hour PIC 101 workshop that will be offered in our communities. The second is to create a zine that can be disseminated as we conduct our workshops.

We look forward to offering our first couple of PIC 101 workshops in April and June respectively. Below is a draft of an image that our friend, the talented Billy Dee has created for the zine.

By Billy Dee

The goal of the PIC collective is to make the invisible visible. I’ll keep you up to date about our progress as we launch our workshops this spring.

Jan 28 2011

A Little Friday Inspiration…

It’s been a long week and my sister sent this to me. I share it with you.

Jan 27 2011

Hard Time: The Hustle – A National Geographic Documentary Premieres on Feb 1

I was sent information about a documentary series that is set to premiere on the National Geographic Channel. I cannot vouch for it because I have not seen it but am passing along information to those who might be interested in watching it. I have to say upfront that I worry about the fact that the series of documentaries will be featured on National Geographic. This is not because I do not have the utmost respect for that franchise but because I worry in general about the “spectacle” aspect of punishment and imprisonment in our culture. That being said, here’s the relevant information:

HARD TIME: The Hustle
Tuesday, February 1 at 9PM ET/PT

Go inside the underground prison economy at Ohio’s Ross Correctional Institution and see inmates try their hands at different money-making strategies. A “jailhouse thief” brings his street ways within jailhouse walls, brutally robbing inmates and selling their possessions. A drug dealer on a 27-year sentence for attempted murder struggles to stay “clean” after getting caught up selling contraband at the orientation prison.

“Coffee Currency” – In prison, the going rate for little extras is measured in tablespoons of instant coffee.

“Viking or Victim” – In prison, you have to size up your fellow inmates quickly.

Jan 27 2011

A Story about Restorative Justice: An On-Going Series

I have decided to start a series that will highlight various example of restorative justice in action. Here is the first installment:

A woman named Philippa Hughes was mugged last year. Here is some information about the incident:

Hughes was talking on her cell phone and walking in Shaw when the man tried to snatch it from her hands. But Hughes wouldn’t let go. In the struggle, he broke free. She ran after him, screaming — loud enough to summon College of Art and Design professor Lucy Hogg, who lives in the area, to her front door. The alleged mugger, who was apparently off balance, ran into the car in the picture.

A plains-clothes officer jumped the suspect immediately. He cuffed the mug as three more police cars arrived.

The officers told Hughes that this suspect was wanted in other snatching cases. The plains-clothes officer, who happened to be in the area to see the whole thing go down, called in for backup and was ready to act at the right moment, Hughes said.

Usually, this is where the story ends. However Ms. Hughes recently received a letter from the man who attacked her:

I am writing this letter to let you know that I apologize for what I did. I am truly sorry, I can imagine the pain and trauma I have caused in your life. You have every reason to have negative feelings towards me and to want to see me incarcerated. I am not the type of person that does stuff like that; I am a very likable and unique person with a good heart. I was at a down point in my life when I made the mistake of mugging you but that is still no excuse. I have made myself look like something I’m not. I am very disappointed in myself and embarrassed. While I was incarcerated I thought about what I did every day and that is something I have to live with for the rest of my life. I have suffered a lot while I was in jail and I changed a lot. I know you don’t want to even hear from me but I hope you can take me into consideration and hopefully one day you can find it in your heart to forgive me. And I thank you for taking time out of your day to read this letter. God bless you.

Ms. Hughes received the letter from the prosecutor’s office and is considering writing back. I hope that she decides to do so. Here is what Ms. Hughes had to say about her experience:

Hughes says that she did feel traumatized after the incident but that she welcomed the letter anyway. “I think it’s such a nice completion to the story,” she says. “That doesn’t happen very often.”