Mar 31 2011

Killing Children in the U.S.: The Case of George Stinney

An anonymous person e-mailed me about a young man named George Stinney. I had never heard of his story before. More on young Mr. Stinney soon.

It’s hard to believe that it wasn’t until 2005 that the U.S. Supreme Court overturned the juvenile death penalty by ruling that killing individuals who had committed their crime before age 18 was cruel and unusual punishment. Way before 2005, there was a growing consensus across the world that the death penalty was not acceptable as a form of punishment for children. Between 1990 and 2000, the executions of children had been documented in only six countries: Iran, Nigeria, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, the United States, and Yemen. Enough said…

Thomas Graunger was the first person executed for a juvenile crime in 1642. Since then, the U.S. executed 365 people who committed juvenile crimes. Click here for a list of the individuals who were executed for crimes that they had committed as juveniles in the modern era. In a number of modern-day cases, youth who had been sentenced to death in the United States were mentally impaired. A study found that all 14 U.S. juvenile offenders sentenced to death in 1988 had suffered serious head injuries during their childhoods. All 14 suffered from psychiatric disorders (Amnesty International).

One of the other major issues about the U.S. juvenile death penalty was that it was racist. Two-thirds of juveniles who were on death row were from minority racial groups, and most of their alleged victims were white. This brings me back to the case of George Stinney. The story that I read about him begins this way:

In a South Carolina prison sixty-six years ago, guards walked a 14-year-old boy, bible tucked under his arm, to the electric chair. At 5′ 1″ and 95 pounds, the straps didn’t fit, and an electrode was too big for his leg.

The switch was pulled and the adult sized death mask fell from George Stinney’s face. Tears streamed from his eyes. Witnesses recoiled in horror as they watched the youngest person executed in the United States in the past century die.

Stinney was of course Black and today a man named George Frierson is fighting to clear the boy’s name charging that the state killed the wrong person. Unfortunately, the story is a familiar one.

Stinney was accused of killing two white girls, 11 year old Betty June Binnicker and 8 year old Mary Emma Thames, by beating them with a railroad spike then dragging their bodies to a ditch near Acolu, about five miles from Manning in central South Carolina. The girls were found a day after they disappeared following a massive manhunt. Stinney was arrested a few hours later, white men in suits taking him away. Because of the risk of a lynching, Stinney was kept at a jail 50 miles away in Columbia.

Stinney’s father, who had helped look for the girls, was fired immediately and ordered to leave his home and the sawmill where he worked. His family was told to leave town prior to the trial to avoid further retribution. An atmosphere of lynch mob hysteria hung over the courthouse. Without family visits, the 14 year old had to endure the trial and death alone.

Apparently, George Stinney confessed to the crime, the trial lasted 3 hours and the all-white jury came back with a guilty verdict in 10 minutes. Anyone interested in learning more about this case can listen to this NPR Story which interviews family members of Stinney and also of one of the young women who was murdered.

Our history is replete with cases like these. Most of them are committed to obscurity. I am grateful to the stranger who shared the story of young George Stinney with me and I am proud to pass it on…

Someone e-mailed this harrowing clip from a film called “Carolina Skeletons” depicting the killing of George Stinney. It is a dramatization of events and it is heartbreaking.

Mar 29 2011

Resisting the PIC in Words and Images…

For over a year now, I have been immersed in a great project that I have written about on this blog. The Cradle to Prison Pipeline Comic Arts Zine Project brought together three local organizations to create a series of graphic novels or zines about juvenile justice related issues. On a separate track, the Chicago PIC Teaching Collective has also been collaborating with our friend, the talented Billy Dee, to create an illustrated zine about the PIC. Finally, everything is coming together as we prepare to send each of these publications to the printer next week. I am not overstating it when I say that each publication is superb [which I had nothing to do with].

I am so excited to be able to share the final products with all of you in May 2011. We will have a zine release party on May 12th at the Jane Addams Hull House Museum. I hope that those who live in Chicago will join us as it will be the only opportunity for people to receive hard copies of the full set of 5 zines. We have already allocated all of our print run to local schools and community-based organizations. If you live outside of Chicago, not to worry you will be able to download PDF copies of the zines online. We hope that everyone who gets a copy of the zines uses it to raise awareness about the PIC and to organize to dismantle this system.

I have just seen the final draft of the PIC Is zine illustrated and designed by Billy today. It brought tears to my eyes. It is just that affecting and mind-blowing. I can’t wait to share all of the zines in May. In the meantime, here is just one image with text from the PIC Is zine.

It may be hard to decipher because I am limited in terms of how large the image can be but the words read: “The Prison Industrial Complex warehouses hundreds of thousands of mentally ill people who have been denied appropriate health care on the outside.”

Note: Dovetailing with my earlier post about preaching to our choirs… These publications will be our choir’s offering to the broader movement. They may not resonate with everyone else’s choir but we will put them out into the world as our contribution and invite any others who might find them useful to sing from them too (using their own improvised riffs of course)…

Mar 29 2011

In Defense of Preaching to our Choirs…

I am supposed to be on vacation this week and yet I find myself unable to “vacate.” I had made a deal with myself that I would not read anything related to prisons or my work yesterday. I failed on both counts. Anyway, one of the articles that I read described a presentation that Michelle Alexander made to a crowd in Pasedena, California. Here’s the part of the article that jumped out at me:

Organized by the Pasadena Public Library and the Flintridge Center, with a dozen or more cosponsors, including the ACLU Pasadena/Foothills Chapter and Neighborhood Church, and the LA Progressive as the sole media sponsor, the event drew a crowd of the converted, frankly — more than two-thirds from Pasadena’s well-established black community and others drawn from activists circles. Although Alexander is a polished speaker on a deeply researched topic, little she said stunned the crowd, which, after all, was the choir.”

I want to complicate the concept of “the choir” today. I actually don’t think that in our complicated world there is “a” choir anymore. Rather I think that there are multiple interlocking choirs. In addition, I want to offer a full-throated defense of “preaching to our choirs.”

Years ago, I used to facilitate anti-racism workshops. I must have led at least 30 of them before I recognized that perhaps the person who was best suited to facilitate them was a white person (preferably a white male). I wrestled with myself about the issue because after all I have been the target of racism for my entire life. Who better to “educate” others about racism than me? But as I stood in front of rooms of mostly white people, it became clear that my voice was not the one that had the most impact in changing their ideas about racism in America. Whenever I would co-facilitate these workshops with a white person, I noticed that the message resonated differently. Somehow the audience seemed more willing to listen to the white facilitator’s voice than mine. There are complicated reasons underlying this fact but the reality could not be denied:”White people ‘heard’ other white people about racism differently than they did a black woman.” Even though many of the white people who attended my anti-racism trainings could have technically been considered part of my ‘choir’, they needed a conductor who looked like them in order for their music to really soar.

I retired from running anti-racism workshops in 1999. I have since found that my energy can be put to better use in supporting my anti-racist white friends who are working to educate their own communities about these issues. I have provided resources, training materials, and an ear for them over the years. And frankly, I have found that my blood pressure and level of stress have decreased significantly as a result. I must admit that it was hard to move away from this work mainly because I felt strongly that people of color’s voices should be centered in discussions about racism in America. However, coming to the conclusion that it was white people’s responsibility to take the lead in educating other white folks about racism turned out to be a blessing and frankly a bit of a relief.

“So what role should people of color play in facilitating anti-racism workshops?” you might ask. My answer is simple. Any role that feels comfortable for the individual person of color. There are of course many, many people of color who have and continue to facilitate anti-racism workshops. I don’t want anyone to misinterpret my words. I think that their voices are important and I know that they can and do have a positive impact in addressing racism. For me, I felt that my voice was not as impactful for white audiences as that of my white co-facilitators when discussing racism. I am merely sharing my own conclusions about this work, based on my own personal experiences. My views are not intended to be generalized. Additionally, I have to say that for me those workshops always took an emotional toll. I could not sustain that in any ongoing way. Some people will feel that this was a cop-out but I have made my peace with it. I could not successfully “distance” myself from the issue of racism and therefore I had no business facilitating conversations about it with anyone. Ultimately, I came to the conclusion that the onus for dismantling white supremacy was on white people. I could be an ally but I didn’t want to be at the forefront of that movement.

In terms of anti-prison education and organizing, I confront many of the same questions that dogged me when I was doing anti-racism work. [an aside: anti-prison work really is also anti-racism work] This time, however, I find myself in the position of someone who has never been incarcerated. If I am consistent in my thinking, the simple question then is: “Is it the responsibility of those of us who haven’t been incarcerated, to educate our peers about prisons?” If the answer to that question is yes, what role(s) do and should formerly and currently incarcerated individuals play in this work?

In much the same way that I believe that people of color’s voices deserve to be centered in discussions about racism, I think that prisoners’ voices deserve to be at the core of our discussions about the PIC. And yet, I have to ask myself some hard questions about whether their voices carry the same purchase as Michelle Alexander’s with the general public? To certain audiences, it is precisely because Alexander has not been a prisoner that she can be heard and that her arguments can gain purchase.

Let me add another twist to the mix. As a woman of color, I know that some people (mainly white people) will dismiss what I have to say about prisons. “Of course, she is passionate about these issues,” they might say, “After all, black people are particularly targeted and impacted by the PIC.” So once again the issue of race comes up. It always does.When Buzz Alexander speaks about prisons, I believe that he is heard differently on the topic than Michelle Alexander is. As an older white man, his voice carries special authority with certain audiences by virtue of his social location. I may want to rail against this as unfair and perhaps even close my eyes to it but it is simply true. Does this mean that I am advocating that Michelle no longer write and speak about prisons or for that matter that I stop too? Of course not, I just have to recognize that if I want a mass movement to emerge to dismantle the PIC, I have to be willing to concede that I may not be the best interlocutor for certain audiences.

The truth is also that we all have a responsibility to preach to our own choirs. This is not a bad thing. This is not problematic in my opinion. White people need to step up to talk to their communities about mass incarceration. As a black woman, I too need to preach to my choirs (which can include other black women, or former educators, or organizers….). Those of us who are privileged through having escaped mass incarceration have to preach to our choirs of the never-imprisoned. That is our responsibility. It would be wrong for us to sit on our hands and wait for prisoners to take the lead. But this leaves an important question that deserves consideration: How do we avoid speaking for prisoners without the benefit of their involvement in our conversations?

In much the same way that some people of color will resent my call for white people to take the lead in educating their peers about racism, some prisoners will resent my call for those of us who are not imprisoned to take the lead in educating our peers about incarceration. “What do you know about prison?” they will rightly ask. Just as many people of color will ask “What do white people know about the pain of racism?” My answer to both of those questions is that experience gives us special purchase on understanding but privilege also affords its own experience. So long as the voices of the marginalized are taken seriously, centered (to the extent that they can be), and respected then I see no problem. We can do this in different ways but we need to do it.

Did I mention how complicated all of this is? Here’s my main point: I think that we all need to preach to our own choirs. If each of us did this, then true movement-building would be possible. There would be no need to listen to the constant admonitions that those of us who are working in particular communities need to take our messages out beyond our borders. I want to be an ally to other communities but I don’t want to organize them. I want to preach to my own choir(s).

Mar 27 2011

Poem: The New Warden by Jimmy Santiago Baca

By Bec Young (Just Seeds Artists' Cooperative)

Born in 1952 in Santa Fe of Chicano and Apache descent, Jimmy Santiago Baca was abandoned by his parents and at 13 ran away from the orphanage where his grandmother had placed him. He was convicted on drug charges in 1973 and spent five years in prison. There he learned to read and began writing poetry. His semiautobiographical novel in verse, Martin and Meditations on the South Valley (1987), received the 1988 Before Columbus Foundation’s American Book Award in 1989. In addition to over a dozen books of poetry, he has published memoirs, essays, stories, and a screenplay, Bound by Honor (1993), which was made into a feature-length film directed by Taylor Hackford.

The New Warden
by Jimmy Santiago Baca (1979)

He sat in the cool morning.
He had a handful of apple seeds in his palm.
He sat there contemplating
Where he would plant them.
A month later he tore the kitchen down
and planted apple seeds there.
Some of the convicts asked him why.
“Apples, “ he said, “is one of America’s
great traditional prides. Remember
the famous ballad Johnny Apple Seed?”
No one had heard of it, so he set up
A poetry workshop where the death house had been.
The chair was burned in a great ceremony
Some of the Indian convicts performed
Ancient rituals for the souls of those executed in the past.
He sold most of the bricks and built
Little ovens in the earth with the rest.
The hospital was destroyed except for one new wing
To keep the especially aged infirm ones.
And funny thing, no one was ever sick.
The warden said something about freedom being the greatest cure
For any and all ailments. He was right.
The cellblocks were razed to the ground,
Some of the steel was kept and a blacksmith shop went up.
With the extra bricks the warden purchased
Tents, farming implements and bought a big yellow bus.
The adjoining fields flowed rich with tomatoes, pumpkins,
Potatoes, corn, chili, alfalfa, cucumbers.
From the nearby town of Florence, and as far away as Las
People came to buy up loads and loads of vegetables.
In one section of the compound the artists painted
Easter and Christmas and other holiday cards on paper
previously used for disciplinary reports,
The government even commissioned some of the convicts
To design patriotic emblems.
A little group of engineers, plumbers, electricians
Began building solar heating systems and sold them
To elementary schools under cost. Then,
Some citizens groups grew interested. Some high school kids
Were invited to learn about it, and soon,
Solar systems were being installed in the community.
An agricultural program opened up.
Unruly convicts were shipped out to another prison.
After the first year, the new warden installed ballot boxes.
A radio and TV shop opened. Some of the convict’s sons
And daughters came into prison to learn from their fathers’
trades and talking with them about life.
This lead to several groups opening up sessions dealing with
Language, logic, and delving into past myths and customs.
Blacks, Mejicanos, Whites, all had so much to offer
Discussing what they found to be untouched by past historians.
Each day six groups of convicts went into the community,
Working for the aged and infirmed.
One old convict ended up marrying the governor’s mother.

Mar 24 2011

‘Ready to Die’, Biggie Smalls, and the Prison Industrial Complex…

1994 marks the year that the Notorious B.I.G.’s (a.k.a. Biggie Smalls) debut album “Ready to Die” was released. I am thinking about this today because I read an article noting that the baby who appeared on the album cover is now 18 years old. That was shocking to me because I can’t believe that so many years have gone by since this important album first hit the scene.

It is worth taking a moment to consider this album cover in our current social context of heightened racialized surveillance and increasing state violence against people of color. The cover depicts a tiny black baby in front of a white background that threatens to swallow him up, with the words “Ready to Die: These are the Breaks” written underneath. It still takes my breath away. I remember the impact that this cover had on me back in 1994. I felt an overwhelming sense of sadness sweep over me as I thought about the message that was being sent to all of us. Biggie had been “ready to die” since his birth. I thought of him at the time and still do as a stand-in for so many young black men who have expressed similar sentiments (though not as eloquently). Tragically, only three years after his debut album was released, Biggie was gunned down at the age of 24.

As I continue to think about the ways that the state controls and disciplines black and brown bodies, the “Ready to Die” album cover provides another lens for understanding these issues. If Biggie proclaims himself, “Ready to Die” then the rest of us as spectators are off the hook for caring about his humanity. It seems that the album cover is both social commentary on the cheapness of young black men’s lives in America but also perhaps unwittingly and ironically its message elicits the viewer’s consent for state violence against young black men. The baby appears as just another killable black body rather than as an “innocent” one. After all, black bodies are synonymous with criminality, poverty, and disposability. This is something that I often write about on this blog.

The album came at a historical moment of increased visibility of blackness through hip hop culture along with higher levels of racialized surveillance and state violence against black people through the war on drugs and other tough on crime policies. Within this historical and cultural context, young blackness was and remains inherently deficient and the black body is inherently violent. What meanings would we ascribe to an album cover, that would have for example, had a white baby in front of a black background with the words “Ready to Die” underneath? Think about whether this would elicit the same emotions or generate the same type of analysis. The white body is inscribed as inherently “innocent”; this is why the taking of white life is seen as so much more tragic and important. The state is meant to “punish” black bodies and to “protect” innocent white ones.

Amos Wilson (1990) has written something that rings true in the context of analyzing the album cover and provides us with a frame through which to understand it:

In the eyes of White America an exaggeratedly large segment of Black America is criminally suspect. This is especially true relative to the Black male. In the fevered mind of White America, he is cosmically guilty. His guilt is existential. For him to be alive is to suspected, to be stereotypically accused, convicted and condemned for criminal conspiracy and intent. On the streets, in the subways, elevators, in the “wrong” neighborhood (p.37).”

These are not pretty words but they are true ones. One cannot understand the current manifestation of the prison industrial complex without interrogating the notions of blackness that naturalize state violence against black and brown people. Some people will protest and say “no, you are painting with a broad brush.” My answer is that the evidence for my claims is all around us. The proof is in the millions of black and brown bodies being fed through the prison industrial complex yearly.

I leave you with one of the most memorable songs off “Ready to Die” called “Suicidal Thoughts.” It appears fittingly as the final song on the album.

Mar 23 2011

The Depressing Commercialization of Nelson Mandela’s Imprisonment…

I don’t really want to write about this today but I feel compelled to. Nelson Mandela is 92 years old and he is a real hero of mine. While I was in college, I was the director of our campus Southern African Committee for two years. I was active in pushing our campus to divest from the Apartheid regime of South Africa. I was in college when Mandela was released from prison on February 11th 1990. I remember watching the coverage of his release on television in tears. I was so excited to see him walking hand in hand with Winnie. It was an indelible image. Later in 1991, he came to Ottawa Canada and I was one of the student leaders invited to meet him. I still have a photo of him from that day. It was one of the most memorable days of my life.

So you will pardon me if I feel sick to my stomach after having read yesterday that Mr. Mandela’s Foundation is launching a clothing line. My problem is not that Mr. Mandela is associated with clothing. After all, images of Malcolm, Martin, Che etc… are all over t-shirts. My particular disgust is reserved to the fact that the clothing line will be called “46664 Apparel.” You read that correctly. 46664 is Mr. Mandela’s prison number from his incarceration on Robben Island. I have no right to care about this at all. The man was imprisoned for 27 years and he can do whatever he wants. Who cares what a peon like me thinks? But I have to say that I am really uneasy about this type of commercialism.

From the article:

The 46664 apparel line was introduced earlier this month by Mandela’s foundation of the same name, which was established in 2002 as a global HIV/AIDS awareness prevention campaign. Besides helping to sustain the foundation’s charitable gifts, profits will also assist in boosting South Africa’s troubled textile and clothing industry. Designed by Seardel, South Africa’s biggest textile and clothing manufacturer, the line will feature brightly colored men’s sportswear and intricately patterned, African-influenced women’s wear that will be interchangeable for the office or casual weekend wear. At present, U.S. retail for a T-shirt will cost about $26 and a man’s collared shirt will cost about $86.

The quote cited above suggests that Mr. Mandela initially allowed his prison number to be used to set up a foundation to address global hiv and aids. Now the proceeds from the clothing line will be used to support the Foundation and also buttress South Africa’s textile industry. So technically this is a social enterprise. And yet…

The profits will go to elected projects that are in line with, and take forward, the humanitarian legacy of Nelson Mandela. It is important to note that all monies raised by 46664 will not accrue to any individual. Information relating to each of these elected projects will be made available in the build up to the launch.

The contribution to 46664 will come as a percentage of turnover starting at 7% and ending at 9% of annual turnover. This represents a significant financial commitment to 46664 when measured against current achievable clothing margins. In addition, the terms of the license obliges Seardel to pay minimum guarantees per year, which in turn assists 46664 with long-term planning, through a sustainable income stream.

I don’t know what this means except that it seems unlikely that no one is making any money off this endeavor. Mr. Mandela is not profiting but I can’t believe that this company Seardel is not going to making money from this…

Mar 23 2011

Police as the Gateway to the Prison Industrial Complex…

I write a great deal about the police on this blog. The main reason for this is because police are the gateway to prisons. They feed the PIC. Just this week, the Department of Justice released a scathing report about the New Orleans Police Department (NOPD). Of particular interest to me is that the report confirms the fact that black people in New Orleans have been disproportionately targeted:

Of the 27 instances between January 2009 and May 2010 in which officers intentionally discharged their firearms at people, all 27 of those people were black. “Despite the clear policy violations we observed, NOPD has not found an officer-involved shooting violated policy in at least six years,” the report stated. The report also noted “racial disparities in arrests … in virtually all categories, with particularly dramatic disparity for African-American youth under 17.” In 2009, the report said, the arrest rate of black youths versus white youths was a staggering 16 to 1 — a disparity that was “so severe and so divergent from nationally reported data it cannot plausibly be attributed entirely to the underlying rates at which these youth commit crimes.

It is unsurprising that so many young black people are disproportionately arrested by law enforcement. These arrests now extend to school grounds. In Chicago, 2010 arrest data for youth 17 & under suggest that there were 5,574 arrests on school grounds.

The Supreme Court is actually hearing oral arguments in a case today in which a 13-year-old was questioned by police officers at school. According to Youth Today, “The court could set new terms on what it means for a youth to be “in custody.” Anybody considered to be in custody, regardless of age, must be advised of his rights pursuant to the Supreme Court’s decision in Miranda v Arizona.” I have previously written about the fact that we need to remove police officers from public schools in order to address the school to prison pipeline. In my opinion, it is just wrong for youth to be able to be interrogated on school grounds by law enforcement. Since it looks unlikely that my advice will be heeded in the immediate future, parents and guardians should be advised of their young person’s rights. Just yesterday I read a very good article that provided useful tips for parents when the police want to talk to their child. Below are the suggestions offered:

What should you do if the police wish to question your child?

First, do not expect authorities to respect your parental rights. The mother of the Arvada boy begged the police to allow her to accompany her son to the station when he was arrested; they refused. Your cooperation with police will probably not be reciprocated. Your child does have rights but do not expect to be informed of them.

Second: If possible, record the encounter. It is generally legal to record conversations in your own home. In any case, write down the names and badge numbers of attending officers; politely ask for the contact information for their immediate supervisor.

Where’s the Warrant?

Third: Before letting the police through the front door, ask to see a warrant or court order. Under some circumstances, the police can forcibly enter your home without such documents but those circumstances are legally few. Even if you are threatened with arrest, stand your ground; demand the warrant. Once an officer is allowed to enter, he has the advantage. In some states he can immediately conduct a weapons search to ensure his own safety. In all states he can unofficially survey your home for clues to lifestyle or possible violations of law.

Fourth: If an officer pushes in, do not resist. Doing so opens you to charges of obstructing justice or assaulting an officer. Passively refuse to cooperate and call a lawyer.

Fifth: Whatever an officer says, you are not compelled to bring your children in for an interview or to allow any questioning without a court order. Nor are you required to speak to authorities. The seemingly harmless information you provide can be used against your child. State simply and as often as necessary, “I have nothing to say.”

Sixth: Require the officers to state the nature of the complaint, including the number of the state statute or local ordinance your child is alleged to have violated. Have a copy of your state’s laws on hand, much as you might have a phone book or dictionary.

Mar 22 2011

Another Post About Social Control and Prison Food…

Apparently no good deed can go unpunished, not even the baking of cookies.

On Sunday, a dozen teens and a few adults spent the evening in the kitchen of First United Methodist Church in Pulaski, laboring to fill a large plastic bin with baked treats to send to the Wallens Ridge maximum security prison later this week.

So this group decided to make tons of cookies to send to prisoners and the reach of prisons even impacts this innocuous act:

The ingredients they use are limited by prison policy — no raisins or fruit, explained Hugh Kilgore, First United Methodist’s pastor, because inmates might use them to make liquor. And no sprinkles or glazes because it would make it harder for inspectors to tell that no drugs were among the desserts, Kilgore said.

Henderson said all 2,000 dozen cookies will be carefully checked by corrections staff. “Anything that goes into that prison goes through an X-ray,” he said.

I really don’t think that I need to provide further commentary about this other than to say “really?”

Mar 21 2011

Perpetual Punishment: Garnishing Prisoners’ Earnings and Lifetime Bans From Social Services

A few days ago, I wrote about how jail inmates in England historically had to pay for their own incarceration. Well here in Illinois in 2011, the Supreme Court is hearing a fascinating case that relates to this.

Kensley Hawkins has accumulated $11,000 over 20 years in prison from jobs that he has had while behnd bars. Now the State of Illinois would like to garnish those earnings to have Mr. Hawkins pay for the costs of his own incarceration. Mr. Hawkins has been making about $2 a day building furniture at Stateville Prison which amounts to about $75 a month.

From the Chicago Tribune:

In March 2005, nearly 23 years after he entered prison, the Corrections Department sued Hawkins in Will County. It demanded more than $455,000 that it has spent to house him from July 1, 1983, to March 17, 2005, or an average of about $57 a day.

Under Illinois law, prisoners are liable for their incarceration costs. Most offenders do not have the means to pay, but the department can begin collection proceedings against those who have sufficient assets. Hawkins’ lawyers said the threshold is $10,000 in assets. The state requires prisoners to file financial statements.

In the last eight years, the department has brought more than 200 suits against current and former inmates, Elman said. The department has tried to seize inheritances and awards from personal-injury cases, said James Chapman, a Chicago lawyer who has represented prisoners in such claims.

Hawkins has been told that he owes $455,203.14 to cover the costs of his imprisonment at Stateville Prison. I love the fact that they haven’t even bothered to round down the amount. We have to make sure to collect those 14 cents too. Mr. Hawkins has taken his case to court to stop the state from garnishing the $11,000 in his bank account.

According to the Tribune, “the issue of whether the state can repossess the meager wages paid to inmates will be determined by the Illinois Supreme Court, which will hold arguments in the Hawkins case Tuesday [last week]. It’s the first time the court will address the issue, which also has social justice and public policy ramifications for Illinois.”

States continue to exhibit a stunning lack of foresight by ensuring that once released prisoners will find themselves right back behind bars. Funds that are earned from prison labor should not be garnished, they should be kept in trust and returned to prisoners as they are released to give them a real shot at so-called re-entry. I just read over the weekend that the Michigan Republican Party has decided that perpetual punishment is needed for those convicted of a drug felony in their state. Apparently the Michigan legislature is considering a bill this Tuesday which would bar people with felony drug convictions from receiving food stamps or basic needs assistance for the rest of their lives. Once again, the brilliant minds of our political officials on full display…

Mar 21 2011

Poem of the Day: The County Jail by Jimmy Santiago Baca

The County Jail
by Jimmy Santiago Baca

Men late at night cook coffee in rusty cans,
just like in the hills, like in their childhoods,
without rules or guidance or authority, their fathers
dead or wild as gypsies,
their mothers going down for five dollars.
These are the men who surface at night,
The sons of faceless parents,
the sons of brutal days dripping blood,
the men whose faces emerge from shadows,
from bars,
and they join in circles and squat on haunches,
share smokes, and talk of who knows who,
what towns they passed through;
while flames jump under the coffee can,
you see new faces and old ones,
the young eyes scared and the old eyes
tarnished like peeling boat hulls,
like wild creatures they meet,
with a sixth sense inside of them, to tell them
who’s real and who’s the game;
and their thoughts are hard as wisdom teeth,
biting into each new eye,
that shows itself around the fire.

The coffee is poured steaming hot into cups,
and the men slowly sip.
Shower stalls drip bleakly in the dark,
and the smell of dumb metal is inflamed
with the acrid silence, and once in a while,
a cab horn will sound from outside the windows,
and the man with only a cheek illuminated by the fire,
the rest of his face drenched in shadows,
will get up and leave the circle,
return to his bunk.

“The County Jail” by Jimmy Santiago Baca, from Immigrants in Our Own Land. Copyright © 1977, 1979, 1981, 1982, 1990 by Jimmy Santiago Baca.