May 31 2011

Working with Girls in Detention: Girl Talk Curriculum is Now Available…

I have written a lot about supporting girls in conflict with the law on this blog. This is mainly because I have such a passion for working with girls and young women in general. Much of my adult work has focused specifically on this population. I have also shared information about a terrific project that I am blessed to be associated with here in Chicago called Girl Talk. Girl Talk has a long and illustrious history. It officially ended in 2005 and I have been part of a team that just revived it again earlier this year. You can learn more about Girl Talk’s values and our conceptualization of our role as a group that works inside a jail here.

I am happy to share a new resource today: The Girl Talk Curriculum – Film, Art, and Resistance with Young Women in Detention. You can visit the Girl Talk blog to access this curriculum. I believe that it will be of use to others who work with young women in conflict with the law. It is also a resource that I believe would work equally well with girls on the outside.

I feel really lucky to be sharing time on the planet with the members of the Girl Talk Leadership Team. I am awed by these women’s fierceness, talent, brilliance, and compassion. I know that many others are working inside juvenile jails and prisons across the world. We hope that this new resource will be of use to your work. Let Girl Talk know what you think about the curriculum guide! Again the guide can be accessed through the Girl Talk blog HERE.

May 30 2011

“Which Wolf Wins?” Struggling to Get Out of the Way…

I am currently dealing with the situation of a young person who is very ambivalent about whether he wants to make a positive change in his life. He has already lived a lifetime in 17 years. It feels like he is at the precipice of something important. Then again, we are all always at the precipice of new possibility.

I wish that I could share something of value with him that might be helpful to his ongoing journey. I wish that I could find just the right combination of wise words to provide profound insight. I wish that this was an after-school special where the problems could be resolved within one hour. I find myself daydreaming about being the lead character in one of those problematic “teacher as hero” movies – Dangerous Minds, Freedom Writers or better yet Stand and Deliver. At times like this, I feel particularly disembodied. It’s almost like I am floating outside of myself acting as a narrator of my experience rather than a participant. I recognize this – I am trying to protect myself.

The young man is not ready and I know it. I can’t push him. Over and over again, I say to myself: “You are just one stop on his journey. He may still have many more stops to make.” This is my mantra for the time being. I understand this on an intellectual basis. Yet what I want to do, if I am being honest, is to scream at the top of my lungs: “You are going to end up back in prison if you don’t STOP doing what you are doing. They are going to lock you up again.”

I am struggling today not to make this all about me. But I am failing miserably, I think. I’d like to be able to say that I am doing really well at pushing my ego aside and just letting him move at his own pace. I’d like to say that but it would not be true. I want to grab him by his shoulders and shake him until he decides to heed my advice; until he decides to follow through on something. I am failing miserably and I know it. I hope to do better tomorrow. I have to.

Last week, the young man told me that he has an angel and a devil on his shoulder. He said that they are at war on a daily basis, perhaps even every minute. I think we can all relate to this in our own way. I e-mailed him a parable that I like called the “wolf story.” It is one that I have heard repeated often and in many different contexts. I hope that it makes some sort of impression on him but I don’t know. I can only hope. I will share it here with all of you too. Perhaps it might resonate in your own lives.

One evening, an old Cherokee told his grandson
about a battle that goes on inside people.

He said, “My son, there is a battle, each day
between 2 wolves inside us all.”

One is Evil.
It is anger, envy, jealousy, sorrow, regret, greed, arrogance,
self-pity, guilt, resentment, inferiority, lies,
false pride, superiority and ego.

The other is good.
It is joy, peace, love, hope, serenity, humility, kindness,
benevolence, empathy, generosity, truth, compassion,
faith in the creator, faith in yourself, and faith in others.

The grandson thought about it for a minute
and then asked his grandfather,
“Which wolf wins?”

The old Cherokee simply replied,
“The one you feed.”

For my part, I am going to try to feed my good wolf today. I am praying that the young man who I am working with figures out which wolf he will feed, and soon.

May 29 2011

Profiting Off Prisons…

Last year, I went to the American Correctional Association Conference for the first time. I decided to attend because it was in Chicago and also because I felt that it would be important to check out some of the vendors who were advertising at the conference.

When people balk at descriptions of our current carceral state as the “prison INDUSTRIAL complex,” I always suggest that they pay close attention to those sectors that profit most from our mass incarceration binge.

I have mentioned the fact that the ACA Conference offered a football field size expo with vendors that included food providers, security companies, clothing suppliers, bus companies, telecommunication firms which were exhibiting their wares. One of the most prominent companies that sells to prisons is Aramark. Most college students will recognize Aramark as one of the biggest providers of food services to campuses across the U.S. Below, you will find a very short (under two minute) promo created by Aramark which I have uploaded in order to illustrate the “INDUSTRIAL” aspect of the PIC.

The PIC In Action on Vimeo.

May 29 2011

Sunday Musical Interlude: R.I.P. Gil Scott Heron

I have always loved Gil Scott Heron and was sad to hear of his passing this week. Here is my favorite of his poem/songs titled the “Bottle.” He narrates a tale of alcoholism, poverty, and prison culture.

May 27 2011

Prisons Still Do Not Work: DMX Should Be Released Today…

Regular readers know that though I am slightly obsessed with T.I., my number 1 obsession is DMX. I have written about his trials and tribulations here and here. The reason for my concern about DMX is because I believe that he is one of the poster children illustrating the dysfunction and inhumanity of the PIC.

I just read today that DMX is scheduled to be released from prison this summer.

Here are some salient facts:
1. DMX’s latest incarceration experience is based on a violation of the terms of his probation. This is not surprising because many, many former prisoners end up re-incarcerated for technical violations.

2. “Not long after his incarceration, the judge in the case also ruled that X may suffer from bi-polar disorder, which resulted in him being moved to the Flamenco Mental Health unit section of the facility.” So we learn that DMX is mentally ill. Is this a shock to anyone who has followed any part of this man’s career? He is OBVIOUSLY ill and needs to be treated and NOT locked up.

3. “Once a major staple in the hip-hop game, the former member of the Ruff Ryders has experienced a steep fall from grace, which has been rooted around his admitted drug addiction. Over the past few years, the 40-year-old has been incarcerated a total of 13 times for various offenses.” So DMX is also a drug addict. Again, no surprise to anyone. He is another of the millions of casualties of our stupid and destructive so-called “War on Drugs.” He has been criminalized for his drug use and this is awful.

I am going to start printing up “FREE DMX” t-shirts. Enough already!

May 26 2011

“How can you ignore, we’re dying at the door?”

A few months back, I wrote about the senseless death of a young man named Damian Turner. Well I am happy to share information about a campaign that has been launched by some of his friends and peers on the southside of Chicago to get a trauma center in his name and for all of the other people in their neighborhood.

Instead of pontificating about the campaign, I will let these young people speak for themselves through a music video that they have produced. I only want to say one thing about this: young people in urban centers across the U.S. are subjected to brutal, unforgiving, and oppressive systemic violence every day. I don’t want to hear about youth violence unless adults are willing to address the role and impact of adult-created systemic violence against young people.

May 25 2011

Visualizing California’s Crowded Prisons

Once again, the New York Times comes through for me with data visualization:

May 24 2011

The Supreme Court Provides Useful Ethnographic Data about California Prisons…

I was finally able to read through the Supreme Court opinion about California prison overcrowding last night. I highly encourage anyone interested in prison issues to read through it. You don’t have to be a lawyer or law student to understand the opinion. It is written in an accessible way. In Forbes Magazine, Ben Kerschberg provides very good information about the conditions that the majority cited in support of its opinion. I was particularly interested in the following ethnographic information about the current conditions in the California prisons that were cited in the opinion:

Physical Illness

* A prisoner with severe abdominal pain died after a 5-week delay in referral to a specialist.
* A prisoner died of testicular cancer after prison doctors failed to do a work up for cancer for the prisoner, who was in pain for 17 months.
* Physically ill prisoners were held together in one prison in a 12-by 20-foot cage with up to 50 sick inmates for five hours.
* In Plata, the State conceded that deficiencies in prison medical care violated prisoners’ Eighth Amendment rights. That’s a pretty profound concession.
* Overcrowding has increased the incidence of infectious disease and has led to rising prison violence and greater reliance on lockdowns. The average lockdown lasted 12 days. According to the district court, at least 20 lockdowns lasted for 60 days.
* A review of referrals for urgent specialty care at one prison revealed that only 105 of 316 pending referrals had a scheduled appointment.
* Urgent specialty referrals at one prison had been pending for six months to a year.

Mental Health

* Wait times for mental treatment ranged as high as 12 months.
* The suicide rate in California’s prisons in 2006 was nearly 80% higher than the national average for prison populations. A court-appointed Special Master found that “72.1% of suicides involved ‘some measure of inadequate assessment, treatment, or intervention, and were therefore most probably foreseeable and/or preventable.’”
* A federal district could found “overwhelming evidence of systemic failure to deliver necessary care to mentally ill inmates.”
* In 2007, after 12 years of examining the California penal system, a Special Master appointed by the district court reported that the state of mental health care in California’s prisons was deteriorating.
* One correctional officer reported that he had kept mentally ill prisoners in segregation for “6 months or more.” Some were held in tiny, phone booth-sized cages without toilets. “The record documents instances of prisoners committing suicide while awaiting treatment.”

This is some really awful stuff…

May 23 2011

Women in Prison and The “Myth of Small Numbers”

From the Just Seeds Artists' Cooperative

I came across a short piece by Erika Kates about women in prison. It reminded me of just how invisible women in prison continue to be in society. I have written often about the plight of women and girls in prison on this blog. Erika Kates offers some useful statistics to provide context for this issue:

1. The U.S. has the largest incarcerated population in the world. In 2007, over two million prisoners were held in federal, state and local correction institutions; of these 203,100 were women.

2. The percentage of women has more than doubled – it is now 9%; and this is the highest percentage in the world.

3. In 1977-2007 the U.S. female prison population grew by 800%; and the annual growth has doubled that of men for some time.

4. The US also has the highest incarceration rate in the world. In 2008, it was around 900 per 100,000 for men, and 62 for women.

5. Racial and ethnic factors are significant, too. The rate for black women in the US is 149 per 100,000 compared to 75 for Hispanic women, and 50 for white women.

Even in Massachusetts, a state with a low incarceration rate of 13 per 100,000, this trend continues. Between 1977-2007 the female prison population grew by almost 400%, with an average annual rate of increase of 8.7% per year.

These numbers belie harsh realities for incarcerated women and girls. In light of the Supreme Court decision about California prison conditions, below is an excerpt from a talk given by sociologist Jodie Lawston a couple of years ago. Jodie shared this with me last year as I prepared to lead a discussion with community members about gender and the prison industrial complex. I believe that her words are informative and motivating. I think that you will agree.

“Mirroring the trends we see in men’s incarceration, the increase in the imprisonment of women has disproportionately affected those who are of color and poor. Close to 70 percent of women confined in local, state, and federal institutions are Black, Latina, First Nation and Asian (Diaz Cotto 2006; James 2005; Johnson 2003); most are also poor or working class. I should also briefly mention that recent research shows that mandatory minimum sentences, enacted with and after the drug laws of the 1980s, do not just disproportionately burden women but Black women. So Black women have been disproportionately affected by mandatory minimums and other sentencing enhancements, and of course the war on drugs.

Most of the research on violence and abuse in women’s prisons has focused on sexual abuse and medical neglect at the hands of prison staff.

Violence at the hands of male correctional staff—especially that which is sexual in nature—has existed since women were incarcerated in separate wings of men’s prisons in the nineteenth century (Freedman 1981). Both Human Rights Watch (1996) and Amnesty International (1999) released reports that not only document this ongoing abuse but that underscore the ways in which male correctional staff inflict sexual violence with almost total impunity. Human Rights Watch exposed cases of sexual abuse and assault by male correctional officers in women’s prisons from Georgia to California; this report found that male guards have subjected women to sexual assault, extortion, groping during body searches, rape, and in some cases, impregnation.

Approximately 25 percent of incarcerated women report sexual abuse while imprisoned (Talvi 2008). Until March 1992 Georgia incarcerated women were fondled and groped by male prison staff, sexually propositioned, coerced into sexual relationships by threat of retaliation or in exchange for contraband, raped, and/or impregnated (Human Rights Watch 1996). Similarly, in 1997 a U.S. Department of Justice investigation into women’s prisons in Arizona found that the prison administration failed to protect women from sexual abuse inflicted by correctional officers and other staff. This abuse included rape, sexual relationships, sexual touching, and close-up viewing during dressing, showering and use of toilet facilities (Amnesty International 1999). Even medical staff have been found to sexually abuse women in prison. In 1994 several cases were brought to the attention of human rights organizations, of a prison doctor that sexually assaulted women at Central California Women’s Facility (CCWF). Women that went to this doctor for common colds or other ailments were subjected to forced gynecological exams and sexual touching (Human Rights Watch 1996). In a more recent 2008 case in Michigan, women prisoners at Scott Regional Correctional Facility were awarded $15.4 million dollars for the sexual abuse they endured. The prisoners testified about sexual advances, assaults, and rapes by male guards (Lam 2008).

Healthcare, or lack thereof, can also be considered a form of abuse, and runs the gamut from improper medical care administered by untrained and unqualified staff to outright refusal of medical treatment. While medical care is also problematic in men’s institutions, in comparison to men women present “more serious and longstanding health problems” when they enter prisons (Talvi 2007, 87).

Cases of medical neglect are too numerous to enumerate here, but I will mention a few. In a study of prison healthcare in Florida from 1992 to 1996, a woman prisoner who had a miscarriage waited six to seven hours before medical personnel sent her to the hospital, even though she was bleeding profusely; another pregnant prisoner, who had a history of prior pregnancy problems and was in severe pain, was told that the prison does not treat pregnant prisoners (Amnesty International 1999). In 1998, forty prisoners at the Virginia Correctional Center for Women signed a petition describing delays in getting access to emergency care, doctors, medication, and treatment for chronic illnesses (Amnesty International 1999). A woman who was bleeding profusely from the rectum was told by staff to elevate her feet, and subsequently bled to death (Amnesty International 1999).

As I mentioned earlier, I think it’s critical to hear from incarcerated women themselves, as they are the experts on incarceration. I just want to give one quote from a woman inside about medical neglect, as this is an issue that they repeatedly highlight. For example, Zoe states:

There were women on the compound who had ailments impossible to treat or care for in a facility which was not a medical center. Women taken out for surgery would come back to the compound and receive improper post-op care, often getting infections. I knew a woman, who had been an attorney on the outside who was given wrong medication. In return she had a stroke, and by the time I left the compound, she looked as if she was close to dying. A woman died in her cube… Everyone knew it was an unnecessary death and could have been prevented with earlier proper action and medical care. One woman I lived with for six weeks in the “fish bowl” —a converted TV room, overcrowded with sixteen women and no ventilation—went out to have a hysterectomy. When she came back, she could barely walk. She received no post-op care, and I only saw an officer check on her twice. Mostly the inmates took care of her.

These stories, which may seem shocking to those of us on the outside of prison, are par for the course on the inside of prison. While medical neglect has physical consequences for imprisoned women, it has other, more obscure consequences in that it essentially silences these women. This silence can be blatant, as when prison personnel cut off outgoing mail to cover up malpractice and keep women from speaking out about staff “mistakes.” But it is also less obvious in that refusing to treat women’s ailments, or treating them inappropriately, frequently keeps imprisoned women physically weak and unable—even afraid—to speak out about their conditions.”

May 20 2011

When A Brother Pleads Guilty…

I am incredibly fortunate and blessed to know some of the most talented and amazing people. I want to share a poem that my friend, the incredible poet and performer, E Nina Jay posted on her Facebook page yesterday. This poem really spoke to me and I think that it will be thought-provoking and moving for many others. Nina is a survivor of sexual violence and continues to just tell her truth unflinchingly and powerfully!

When A Brother Pleads Guilty… Is He Guilty?
by E Nina Jay

i used to really believe back then
that when a brother pled guilty
he was guilty
or wouldn’t have said it
that was before i believed in
nightmares of
fists hurling into ribs
feet pressing pressure into chests
gun barrels kissing innocent mouths
like a tongue
i believed back then
that when a brother pled guilty
he was coming clean
being real saving time
i really believed in dreams of respectable interviews and
untainted lineups
and cops who really did want to get the right guy
four in the morning bell rings
two white detectives
pretend to care
four in the morning
down to the station
pajamas and gym shoes
“look at these. look at these!”*
four in the morning
three snapshots
two white detectives
one unmarked car with a roof light on
“which one did that to you?”
pick one pick one pick one pick one
four in the morning
three pictures of black men
two white detectives
one victimized black girl
wanting to be pleasing
wanting to be safe
wanting to be left alone
pick one pick one pick one pick one
mind races eyes blank
so tired body still hurts
don’t want to sit in unmarked cars
at four in the morning
looking at pictures of crackheads
they all looked like crackheads
i just wanna go lay back down
curl myself into myself
get to know this stranger i had been
for four days now
after the rape
pick one pick one pick one pick one
“who did this to you? let us get him!”
i point
picture number one
looked just like picture number two
i point and say
this could be him
they say “no.
we think it’s him”number three*

i am quiet and too broken just now
to ask
why they are there then
asking me questions
they apparently knew the
answers to
just who had raped me
number three
wild hair
wild eyes
looks ready to pounce
i look at him and almost know
the man who raped me
wasn’t hungry
for the particular kind of fix
this brother looked to crave
but then it’s not all that clear
in my head
no crack eyes no crack lips no crack urgency
so calm he was
as he killed me
could a crackhead have killed me
so methodically?
detective car moving toward station
four in the morning
two white men
i am so tiredsuch a stranger to myself*
three men in lineup instead of six
like in the movies
two white guys
tell three black guys
to repeat my rapist’s words
“shutup don’t you say nothing”
“shutup don’t you say nothing”
“shutup don’t you say nothing”*
the one from the picture is there
it could be him it could be him
say it again you there say it again
“shutup don’t you say nothing”*
the motherfucker
it could be him
i think it’s him
they tell me he raped a 12 year old too
that’s how they caught him
yeah, i’m sure, that’s him
no trial
he pled guilty
kidnapping rape weapon
i was young stupid hurting
he was old vacant hurting*
could they even see us?
tell us apart?
but he pled guilty and back then
i really believed when a brother pled guilty
he was guilty
willie beard
was it really you who raped me?
was it really you or were you just the man in the picture?
were you that men bending me and twisting
almost breaking me
or just the man in the picture?
was that you touching me with that knife
or were you just the brother in the picture?
was that your time you served?
four in the morning
two white detectives
three pictures of black men
was your only crime just being too weak
to take another punch?
you pled guilty to kidnapping me raping me
did they hit you where it doesn’t show?
promise you crack?
you pled guilty
you pled guilty
i never wanted to think about this
and what scares me most about that is
i never wanted to think about this
about you
about those pictures
about that lineup
about wild eyes and wild hair*
and was it that wildness that made you seem wild?
i used to really believe
that when a brother pled guilty
he was guilty
didn’t i have a right to believe this?
i never wanted to ask these questions
because i knew i’d never be able to
unask them
never be able to believe again
the possibility
i could have helped them bury you
in a grave with someone else’s tombstone
but you pled guilty
doesnt that mean something?
i do not know
but i do know
that i do not know
i’m not sure i want the truth
but was it you that raped me?