Apr 30 2011

Making Institutional Violence Visible: Chicago Girls in the Sex Trades Lead the Way

A few years ago, I was a board member for a local organization that is led by young women who trade sex for money and survival needs. I learned a lot from that experience and I continue to educate myself about the experiences of girls in the sex trade and street economies.

I am moved to write about girls in the sex trade today because I have been following some of the discussion that has been engendered by the publication of Rachel Lloyd’s new book “Girls Like Us” and the subsequent article published by Rinku Sen in Colorlines.

An affiliate of INCITE! Women of Color against Violence has responded to the Colorlines article with a statement written by those most directly impacted by the sex trades. Here is a key excerpt from that statement:

Like Sen, we oppose and resist any and all forms of violence, including but not limited to: coercion, extortion, violence by police and other law enforcement agents, structural economic, gender- and sexuality-based violence, and racial violence against all people, including people in the sex trades. Such violence also includes the denial of affordable housing, health care, and access to living wage employment[emphasis mine]. We also challenge those in both the anti-trafficking and sex workers’ rights movements who claim to speak on our behalf, and those who use our lives and experiences to advance their own agendas without recognizing our leadership.

Here is another important passage from the statement:

We know that each of our experiences of the sex trades are unique, and there are no one-size fits all solutions. We are members of families and communities struggling to survive and make the best possible choices given the options available to us. For many of us, the truth about the sex trade is somewhere between a completely empowered experience of the sex trade, which requires only decriminalization to eliminate harms, and a completely harmful experience of the sex trade which negatively presumes all of us to be victims in need of “rescue.”

I so appreciate the fact that the authors of the statement fully embrace the complexities inherent in the experiences of young people in the sex trades and street economies. I too am very wary of the new push to create more laws governing “trafficking” that have become popular of late. I have been concerned that these laws further criminalize girls in the sex trades rather than doing the opposite as supporters of such efforts often contend. The INCITE! statement brilliantly articulates the pitfalls of such laws.

The girls from the Young Women's Empowerment Project continue to teach me so much about the real life impacts of institutional violence in all of our lives. I am proud to be an ally to these young women. I would like to share a project that YWEP has embarked on over the past few months called the “Bad Encounter Line.” Because they wanted to document specific examples of how girls in the sex trades experience institutional violence, YWEP set up a phone line to collect stories from their peers. YWEP defines a “bad encounter” as a “negative experience with institutions or systems, such as the Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS), health care, police, hospitals, schools, or any other institution.”

They have since created two zines highlighting some of the stories that they have documented. In their own words, they explain:

After collecting bad encounters we have decided to put the data we have collected into zine form to give back to youth to keep them informed about avoiding violence or hard experiences.”

Below are a couple of examples of bad encounters from the first edition of the BEL zine:

Shelters: At a shelter on the north side asked for residents to deposit money from their paychecks to save up for future apartments. Later when the residents tried to move and asked for their money back, we found out that the money was never deposited and was being embezzled by the caseworker.

Police: A police officer was going to arrest me in exchange for not being arrested, he asked for oral sex. I did, but after he arrested me anyway for prostitution.

You can download the first edition of the BEL zine here to read more bad encounters that YWEP has documented.

In addition, keep your eyes and ears open this summer for the release of YWEP’s occasional paper that will be published by the Chicago Taskforce on Violence against Girls and Young Women which I am proud to have co-founded with my friend Melissa Spatz.

Apr 29 2011

Grace in the Age of Cruelty: Chris Paul is a Hero

I read a powerful, powerful article today; one that should be required reading for all of us who care about prisons and about transformative justice.

Chris Paul is a super-star player on the Charlotte Hornets. I haven’t been a fan of his in particular though I am a longstanding basketball fan. After today, Paul will become my favorite player in the NBA. The article in question is titled the “Lessons of Nathaniel Jones.”

Nathaniel Jones was Chris Paul’s grandfather and by all accounts the two were extraordinarily close.

The man everybody called “PaPa Chili” was the first black man to open a service station in North Carolina and both Chris and his brother worked at it. PaPa Chili was known to let people run tabs when times got tough. Plenty of times, he’d hand people money out of the cash register to get by. Paul called him “my best friend.”

This man who Paul obviously adored was murdered by a group of teenagers in 2002:

On the moonless night of Nov. 15, 2002, five young boys ran across a park, jumped a 61-year-old man, bound his wrists, duct-taped his mouth, and beat him with pipes until his heart stopped.

All for his wallet.

The article describes that youth who killed Mr. Jones as follows:

None of the five boys were particularly hardened criminals. Only Cauthen had been previously arrested — twice for running away and once for stealing his mom’s car. They decided they wanted to rob somebody. Around the corner, in his white van, came that somebody — Jones. He’d closed the filling station and was now getting grocery bags out of his van. “Let’s go get him,” one of them said. They sprinted across Belview Park and jumped him.

Using tape they’d bought that day at a drugstore, they bound his head, neck and hands and began a “relentless, remorseless, conscienceless” attack, according to the judge who sentenced them. Jones died in his carport.

One can only imagine the grief that Paul must have experienced when he heard the news of his cherished grandfather’s death. In fact, the article suggests that Paul held his grandfather’s obituary in his hand during the national anthem for every one of his college games. The writer of the article describes the grief that Paul felt as “bottomless.”

Now, Chris Paul has this to say about what he would like to see happen to the young men who killed his grandfather:

These guys were 14 and 15 years old [at the time], with a lot of life ahead of them. I wish I could talk to them and tell them, ‘I forgive you. Honestly.’ I hate to know that they’re going to be in jail for such a long time. I hate it.”

He wants the young men who killed his grandfather to be freed:

“Even though I miss my granddad,” Paul told me, “I understand that he’s not coming back. At the time, it made me feel good when I heard they went away for life. But now that I’m older, when I think of all the things I’ve seen in my life? No, I don’t want it. I don’t want it.”

I offer no commentary on this. Paul’s words deserve to stand for themselves.

Apr 27 2011

New Start, Right Start: A Youth-Created Film about Juvenile Expungement Reform

I am very involved in advocating for an automatic juvenile expungement bill here in Illinois. For those who are interested learning more about HB2841, you can visit the UN-marked Campaign blog.

I wanted to share a terrific short youth-created film that underscores the value and importance of clearing juvenile criminal records. It is impactful and powerful because the young people speak for themselves about this issue. This film was created in 2007 but is still as timely as ever. We will be creating a curriculum for youth and adults in our state to learn more about this issue and we look forward to making use of this film in that curriculum. Special thanks to the Community TV Network and Michael Chandler in particular for making this film readily available for all of our use. Take 10 minutes to watch this excellent film.

Apr 26 2011

Making Old and Sick People Pay is Just Cruel…

In the past couple of years, the idea that prison costs are unsustainable has gained purchase among policymakers. This has led to more of a willingness to discuss closing some prisons and that can only be a good thing.

Tim Gruber - Served Out: Aging and Dying Behind Bars

I read a recent article in the Financial Times about the aging prison population in the U.S. I have written about this issue in the past. The FT article features the story of an 87 year old prisoner named Melville Atkinson who had already been incarcerated for 20 years. The article suggests that the number of elderly prisoners is poised to increase significantly:

The total number of elderly inmates is predicted to increase between four and seven times in the next 20 years, the fastest growing prisoner age group. Some academics estimate that one-third of the entire US prison population, which currently houses 1.6m people, will be more than 55 years old by 2030.

“It is the grey tsunami and it’s coming for us,” says Keith Davis, the warden at Deerfield.

This is stunning and very, very expensive. Elderly prisoners “like Mr Atkinson require specialist diets, medication and round-the-clock nursing – at an average cost of $70,000 a year, three times that of regular inmates, according to the Pew Center on the States, a think tank. Some cost as much as $1m a year.” I believe that it is a form of cruel and unusual punishment to keep 87 year olds locked behind bars no matter the crime. This should change. If we are not going to immediately abolish prisons, then we should push for age limits for imprisonment at the very least.

A related article points to a county in Pennsylvania that is trying to address its prisoner health care costs by instituting a co-payment requirement for doctor visits:

Fayette’s inmates are required to pay $10 to see a doctor. Inmates who want a second opinion pay a $20 co-pay. There is a $5 fee for prescription medications.

Brownfield said the fees are assessed on inmates with the means to pay. Care is provided at no charge to indigent inmates.

“We definitely see the number reducing of people asking to see a nurse or doctor,” Warden Brian Miller said. “If you have a headache and you want to talk to the nurse to get a Motrin, do you want to spend $5 for a couple of Motrin?”

It’s cheaper for inmates to get the pills at the commissary, Miller said.

“It comes down to a budgetary issue,” Miller said. “Every year, the inmate incarceration numbers are increasing, so anything you can do to recover some costs, we’re going to attempt to do.”

In Allegheny County, Dixon noted, many of the 2,500 to 2,700 inmates are indigent, with no means to make the payment. He said a previous administration considered the idea but rejected it.

A past administration thought it would inhibit people from getting care, where if they didn’t have the money, they would have to decide whether to get care, or get something from the commissary,” Dixon said.

I think that the past administration had it right. Most prisoners were poor when they got to prison and certainly do not become rich while serving their time. I know that it costs a lot of money to provide health care for people so the solution should be to dramatically decrease the numbers of prisoners rather than to make prisoners pay for health care. It is worth reading the entire article to better understand the costs associated with providing health care to prisoners (particularly elderly ones). For example:

Fayette County pays Primecare Medical a monthly base fee of $45,413 to provide health care for inmates, according to the controller’s office. The county paid $31,984 monthly in 2005.

Pennsylvania, which houses about 51,200 inmates, spends an average of $4,000 per inmate annually for health care. For the fiscal year 2009-10, the state collected $414,262 in revenues from inmate co-pays.

Apr 25 2011

Crazy Prison Industrial Complex Fact(s) of the Day (4/25/11)

The U.S. has 2.3 million people incarcerated in its jails and prisons. This population is more than the total number of American military personnel—Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines, Coast Guard, Reserves, and National Guard. Even the army of correctional officers needed to guard 2.3 million prisoners outnumbers the U.S. Marines.

Source: Moskos, 2011

Apr 24 2011

“You Never Truly Come Home From Prison”

I got some sad and disturbing news a couple of days ago. A colleague of mine was re-arrested for a technical violation of his parole and is currently locked up (without bail). This is a man who spent several years in prison and when he was released he dedicated his life to working on behalf of young men who were just like he was. He rose to some prominence in an organization called “Ceasefire.” Ceasefire is currently getting a lot of national attention for its violence interruption work through a documentary directed by Steve James and produced by Alex Kotlowitz called “The Interrupters.” My colleague was by all measures an example of a former prisoner who had successfully “re-entered” society after a long incarceration.

I don’t think that most Americans are aware of how many people are currently locked up in prisons and jails across America for “technical” parole violations. They number in the tens of thousands. Technical violations mean that a person has broken some condition of their probation or parole. Usually these are transgressions that are not even illegal. Technical violations are a particular problem for youth incarceration. Many young people who receive probation or are on parole are mandated to attend school. If for example, they are found to be truant, they are often re-arrested and sent back to prison or jail.

I was talking to a friend about my colleague this weekend. My friend knows him too and is also a former prisoner. He uttered some jarring words to me when I told him about what had happened to our colleague. “You never truly come home from prison,” he told me. “Part of you never leaves the hole.” It is worth spending some time reflecting on my friend’s words and to think about their implication for our work to dismantle the prison industrial complex.

I have referenced this particular scene featuring a young man named Lil’ Mikey from the documentary “The Interrupters” before. I think that it is relevant to resurrect it again in the context of this post.

What I find important to underscore about this clip is that it provides a window into the life that prisoners sometimes leave behind. It highlights that these are people who often have family members who love them and miss them terribly when they are away. It shows the toll that such an absence takes on families of the incarcerated. Finally, it illustrates that “re-entry” is as much about reconnecting with the outside world emotionally as it is about finding a way to make a living and survive on the outside.

I want to believe that what my friend said isn’t true. I want to believe that “you can come home from prison.” But I fear that my friend may be right and that is why it is imperative that prisons be abolished.

Apr 23 2011

No, An Old Jail is NOT a Fitting Tribute to Cesar Chavez…

Sometimes I just have to shake my head as I wonder: “what are these folks thinking?” I read an article suggesting that the National Park Service is considering an old jail as a tribute to the legacy of Cesar Chavez.

The old Monterey County Jail — where Cesar Chavez was held at the height of the Salinas Valley’s farm labor unrest in the 1970s — is on a list of sites being considered by the National Park Service for honoring the farm labor leader.

The sites, stretching from California to Arizona, are listed as part of a Park Service study examining the best way to preserve and commemorate Chavez and the history of the farm labor movement.

According to its website, the Park Service “has been directed by Congress to conduct a “special resource study” of sites significant to the life of Cesar E. Chavez and the farm labor movement in the western United States.” The website says Chavez is recognized as the most important Latino leader in the 20th century.

Chavez spent all of two-weeks locked up at the Monterey County jail in December 1970:

During his two-week incarceration in December 1970 for refusing to call off a lettuce boycott against Salinas Valley growers, Chavez was visited by Coretta Scott King, widow of The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.; and Ethel Kennedy, widow of slain U.S. senator and 1968 presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy.

This is plain ridiculous to me and I sincerely hope that the National Park Service will find another site to honor the legacy of this most important American leader of labor rights and overall social justice. Chavez’s legacy should not be defined by a short stint in jail (though that should be recounted in any consideration of his overarching life history). I do not say this because I think that there is anything wrong with his having been incarcerated for taking a principled stand. Instead, it is my belief that there are likely many other locations that will focus on his actual positive contributions to the United Farm Workers of America. Let the Park Service consider those as a tribute to Mr. Chavez’s tireless organizing.

One of my favorite quotes attributed to Chavez is as follows:

Once social change begins, it cannot be reversed. You cannot uneducate the person who has learned to read. You cannot humiliate the person who feels pride. You cannot oppress the people who are not afraid anymore. We have seen the future, and the future is ours.”

Apr 22 2011

Another Reminder that Not Everyone Agrees With Me…

Many, many people disagree with me about many, many things. Yet on a daily basis, I tend to forget this important fact. What I mean is that this truth is not at the forefront of my daily consciousness. It should be.

Last night, I moderated a great panel about the role of art in social justice activism. There were 4 talented and inspiring panelists who shared their experiences of using art for social change. One of the panelists, Mindy Faber, shared some political video remixes as an example of socially engaged art. Among these were a couple that some of you might remember from several years ago:

During the Q & A segment of the discussion, an older woman of color asked whether any of the panelists considered the deleterious effects of exposing young people to certain art forms. In particular, she suggested that she thought that some of the video remixes were disrespectful in general but particularly disrespectful to the office of the President. Her question and comment provided a good opportunity for all of us to discuss who the intended audiences are for particular art forms. We were also able to discuss the important generational and other differences that exist in how art can be perceived and understood. The tone of the conversation was completely respectful.

What that exchange reminded me about is that I sometimes get so caught up within my own communities that I fail to appreciate the diversity of ideas, values, and views out there in the world. On an intellectual level, I am of course aware that not everyone agrees with how I see the world. But it is also true that I sometimes fail to incorporate this understanding into my daily thinking and actions. Last night was another reminder that not everyone agrees with me and in order to engage in successful movement-building one need to remember this truth.

Here is another remixed (short) video by a young person from Mindy’s program that you might enjoy:

Apr 21 2011

Locking Up Girls Is NOT ‘Gender-Responsive': Excerpt from Chicago Girl Talk’s Manifesto

One of the best parts of my life has been the opportunities that I have had over the years to catalyze and support new organizations, projects and initiatives. I am currently privileged to collaborate with a leadership team of young women of color who have worked tirelessly over the past few months to re-launch an initiative called Girl Talk. My friend Laurie Schaffner also plays an integral role in Girl Talk and it is a pleasure to work with her as well.

Currently Girl Talk consists of bi-weekly film screenings accompanied by an art project on Saturday afternoons in the Cook County Juvenile Temporary Detention Center (JTDC). The films we have selected feature a young female protagonist who faces challenges and ultimately triumphs. After the movie concludes, the incarcerated girls and Girl Talk volunteers work together in small groups to discuss the movies’ themes and work on related art projects.

Girl Talk hosted a dinner and dialogue event last night which was well-attended and informative. In preparation for this event, the leadership team decided to craft a statement of policy and values for Girl Talk. I have been calling it to Girl Talk “manifesto”. You can read the whole statement here (PDF).

Below is an excerpt from the Girl Talk “manifesto”:

Girl Talk believes that it is impossible to provide “gender-responsive” services and programming within an inherently oppressive system that exerts brutal social control over its charges. What we know for sure is that any contact with the juvenile justice system is bad for girls. We also take issue with typical “gender-responsive” programs that intend to redirect adolescent young women’s socialization processes towards mainstream dominant norms for feminine, law-abiding behavior. The underlying position of the Girl Talk curricula is to honor young women and their abilities to grow into strong adults with self-love and purpose.

Girl Talk believes that locating the social problem of girls in conflict with the law as individual “poor choices” that girls make, misses the underlying social forces such as homophobia, violence, racism, sexism, and poverty in which young women live. Gender-specific intervention policies are not necessarily feminist, anti-racist, restorative or critical of the status quo. This is where Girl Talk enters the policy debates over “what is gender-responsive policy and is it good for girls?” Gender-focused programs fail to address the obvious racial disparity between those on the inside and those on the outside, as well as neglect to notice the violence that poverty inflicts in the lives of incarcerated girls. In so doing they miss the opportunity to provide places where young women can articulate their own truths and to find inspiring solutions to the very real challenges faced by young women who come to the attention of juvenile legal authorities.

Although “gender-specific policy” and “culturally appropriate” approaches to working with youth who have transgressed laws have become buzzwords in official juvenile legal system literature, very little mention is ever made in juvenile detention facility practice and procedural manuals that pertain specifically to girls’ unique challenges and strengths. Often the only place where girls are mentioned is in outlining specific nutrition needs for those who are pregnant or lactating. Furthermore, criminologist and juvenile delinquency literature authors focus on the individual offender and his/her (in)ability to make positive choices. Deploying a critical multicultural feminist model to understand youth in trouble broadens our perspective towards seeing youth as being in crisis, rather than youth being the crisis. Thus, our unit of analysis focuses on the juvenile legal system itself, and its punitive approach to dire situations in which children find themselves. This shift provides theoretical and analytic room to deepen our understanding of the ways that unmet social, cultural, educational, physical, mental, and emotional needs of girl children may be linked to later court-involvement.

Note: Girl Talk is hosting its next informational session for interested volunteers on May 14th. Information can be accessed here.

Apr 20 2011

Youth Perspectives on Juvenile “Justice”

(c) The Keller Citizen

I just read an article today about a group of over 200 students from Timbercreek High School who staged a walkout to protest cuts in teaching staff. It turns out that the students are now facing in-school suspension for their actions. Here the background to the story:

About 300 students held a sit-in before school to show support to teachers who had received termination notices because of school budget cuts. Some 500 Timber Creek students attended an assembly where Tunnell discussed the staffing reductions and encouraged kids to get involved by raising awareness in the community about the school funding crisis.

At the end of the assembly, Tunnell asked students to go to class or risk being counted truant. More than 200 students opted to leave the school, and many of them later drove or walked almost four miles to the Education Center on Keller Parkway. Supterintendent James Veitenheimer spoke to students and a few parents who accompanied them for about half an hour.

Last week, about 120 teachers on probationary contracts received termination notices, including 17 at Timber Creek. Officials have said they expect to rehire more than 75 percent of those teachers if a tax increase is approved. KISD is facing a more than $30 million deficit.

The outcome of the student walkout follows:

More than 200 Timber Creek High School students who left campus April 11 to protest cuts in teaching staff are facing in-school suspension.

“The students were disciplined, not for protesting because the protest was peaceful, but strictly for the violation of leaving campus without permission,” said Principal Todd Tunnell.

As of late Monday afternoon, approximately 215 students had received two days of in-school suspension for truancy. Officials said a small number of students may have received harsher penalties because of previous incidents or may have been absent for other reasons.

Students who have in-school suspension are isolated in a room for the entire school day and given work to complete in a study hall environment. Students who protested and returned to class after an impromptu assembly with Tunnell were not penalized, he said.

I am not going to comment on the sheer lunacy of suspending students for their activism. I am pointing this example out to underscore the fact that young people are actively engaging in the important issues of the day.

Back in mid-March, my organization co-sponsored a youth-led teach in about juvenile justice. The young people who attended of course had a lot to say about these issues. One of our supporters and volunteers recorded interviews with some of the youth in attendance. If you are interested in some youth perspectives on juvenile justice issues, you can listen to raw or edited audio interviews here