Jul 31 2011

Sunday Musical Interlude: George Jackson by Bob Dylan

I have always loved this song. I have an old 45 with this song on it but I don’t even own a record player anymore… In keeping with my focus on the Attica Prison Rebellion, here is George Jackson by the great Bob Dylan.

Jul 30 2011

To the State of Florida, Eric Perez’s Life Isn’t Even Worth $5,000

I read with rage this morning the story of the death of a young man who was detained in Florida on a low-level marijuana charge and died in custody “after unsuccessfully seeking medical attention for several hours.” The department of juvenile justice promised to pay $5,000 towards his funeral expenses but at the last minute the CFO of the State of Florida pulled back the check.

Florida Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater is refusing to pay the funeral expenses for a teenager who died in state custody after unsuccessfully seeking medical attention for several hours.

Juvenile justice administrators had offered to pay up to $5,000 in funeral costs to bury 18-year-old Eric Perez, who died at the West Palm Beach detention center on July 10. But after cutting a check to the Tillman Funeral Home, Florida’s chief financial officer ordered that the check be destroyed, records show.


According to the Miami Herald:

Eric, who turned 18 eight days before he died, was stopped June 29 while riding his bicycle because the bike did not have a night light, sources told The Herald. During the stop, officers found a small amount of marijuana on the teen. Because he already was on probation for a years-old robbery charge, Eric was sent to the detention center. He was five feet, eight inches tall, and weighed 120 pounds. A picture of the teen attached to the log shows a youthful-looking kid with a thick Afro and his mouth partly agape. He had a tattoo on his right arm, and was missing a tooth.

At admission, Eric told lockup staff he had smoked marijuana three hours earlier, “one hit.”

Here’s some background about the death of Eric Perez from the Miami Herald:

When Eric Perez died Sunday, July 10 at the Palm Beach County juvenile jail, there were no doctors or nurses on duty, according to the nurse jailers say they tried in vain to reach.

“Nobody works there at night,” Diana Heras said of lockup medical staff. “There is no state funding for night nurses for any night of the week. They do not have a nurse who works at that … facility on the night shift, and they do not work weekends.”

Here’s still more on the tragic story of the young man’s unnecessary death:

Some of Eric’s final agonizing hours — which began as early as 1:30 a.m. and ended with his 8:09 a.m. death — were captured on lockup videotape, DJJ administrators have confirmed. Walters’ agency won’t release the video depicting Eric’s final hours, but sources say it doesn’t bode well for the lockup staff.

The footage, sources told The Miami Herald, depicts Eric’s limp body being dragged on a cot or mat from his room to a common area of the lockup and then back again — a sign that guards knew he was terribly ill and were worried he would infect other lockup detainees

As you read the details of this incident, I dare you not to become progressively more enraged by the minute.

On Sunday, July 10, beginning around 1:30 a.m., Eric complained he had a severe headache, and began hallucinating that an imaginary person was on top of him. He had been throwing up for hours as guards sought “guidance” from a different nurse who did not answer her phone. Records say lockup supervisors and the facility’s superintendent instructed staff not to call 911.

There is much to say about this sorry episode. First, Eric Perez should NOT have been in detention at all. Why are we detaining 18 year olds for marijuana possession? This is another example of the futility and destructiveness of the so-called “War on Drugs.” It is shameful.

Next, the state is claiming that juvenile justice budget cuts did not contribute to the young man’s death. This claim is patently ridiculous on its face. One of the Herald articles quotes Cathy Craig-Myers, who heads the Florida Juvenile Justice Association, saying that “DJJ’s current spending plan, which took effect July 1, contains $77 million fewer dollars than last year’s budget.” How can these types of cuts not eventually have an impact on the care of youth in custody? There was no night nurse on duty in the facility for God’s sake. Come on.

Finally, the state owes this young man and his family a lot more than $5,000. I hope that they are sued for millions.

Update: A Grand Jury in Miami is looking into Eric Perez’s death. This could not come too soon.

Jul 29 2011

Guest Post: Jail Food – A Cruel and Unusual History

About the Author: JailResource.com is an online community for inmates, their friends and family. We seek to provide information on all county and local jails, bring abuses to light, and provide a platform for those affected either directly or indirectly by the jail system. Jail Resource does so by: vetting bail bonds companies to ensure they comply with local and federal regulations, providing a vibrant online community for inmates, friends and family, and by keeping an up-to-date database of county jail information.

Here is their guest post:

When I first saw it my mood instantly sank. It sat on a pale pink tray, barely luke-warm, and had as much character as a broken chair. This was the meal I had been waiting for since being booked into jail? The one thing I thought I could look forward to was a decent meal. Instead I was given tasteless spaghetti with some heavily processed bologna mixed in, soggy vegetables to the side, and two slices of firm wheat bread. Words cannot truly describe the state of food they serve to inmates here and that was one of my better meals.

This account of inmate food by David (last name withheld) a former inmate at Salt Lake County Jail in Salt Lake City, Utah is echoed by inmates across our nations county and local jails. The history of food standards we enjoy in the general public and those practiced in our nations jails and prison system are two different stories.

Food in laws in the United States have a long history dating back to the times of the Roman Empire. During the Middle Ages laws governing food largely disappeared as society broke down. With the Renaissance bringing the age of enlightenment we saw the return of food laws to Europe. These laws then spread to America during the colonial period. In response to squalor conditions at meat-packing plants the United States Congress enacted the Pure Food and Drugs Act of 1906. By 1933 the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) was created.

The other story of food laws is one of the prison and jail systems being thoroughly ignored by food quality reforms throughout the centuries. Serving unpalatable food to inmates has been regarded as an additional way of punishing law breakers. In many regards this rather barbaric thought process has been pervasive enough to survive into modern times. Care of inmates has often lagged behind the general population by many decades if not centuries and food is no different. The news media and Internet are abound with reports of inmates being served food not fit for human consumption.

Leading the continued low quality of food are companies that provide food services to jails. Recently one such company, Armarak, was able to win a contract at Albany County Jail in New York. How did they do it? Armarak did so by providing so-called quality food at $2.89 per inmate, per day. That amounts to about 96 cents per meal. How can a nutritious meal be provided for just 96 cents? Most can’t fathom how this is possible. Just take a look at your local grocery store and see what 96 cents buys you. You’d be hard-pressed to get something out of a vending machine for that amount. Currently, the best protection inmates have against bad food is the 8th Amendment which protects all U.S. citizens from cruel and unusual punishment.

What we need is additional legislation protecting inmates from such low quality food. We are not suggesting thanksgiving everyday or any day, but inmates certainly deserve to be treated with some dignity and not be dehumanized by the food served. When we asked Dave, the former inmate we opened this article with, about his thoughts on the 8th Amendment and jail food he chuckled a bit and replied: “it might not be cruel, but that food is certainly unusual.”

Jul 27 2011

Attica 1971: Setting the Stage for A Prison Revolt

Colorlines is one of my favorite publications. I really like the fact that they unabashedly cover issues of race and racism in the U.S. They are unique in this. Today, Colorlines published a piece titled From Attica to Pelican Bay: A Brief History of Organized Prison Rebellions . Here’s how Attica was discussed in the piece:

Attica, New York (1971)
Began as a protest of the death of black radical activist prisoner George Jackson at the hands of a San Quentin prison guard. Quickly turned from a peaceful demonstration to a riot. Approx 1,000 of the prison’s 2,200 inmates rebelled, seizing control of the facility and taking 33 staff hostage. Authorities agreed to 28 of the prisoners’ demands, which included creating a committee of politicians and journalists to oversee the negotiation talks about better living conditions. The end came when law enforcement officials opened fire, leaving 29 inmates and 10 hostages dead. A class-action suit filed later in the 1970s was finally settled in 2000, when a federal judge ordered New York state to pay $8 million to the surviving inmates.

Sigh… Look it’s true that if you only have a few sentences to describe anything, you will necessarily have to generalize. However, one of my biggest pet peeves involves the way that we often explain historical events by pointing to a single catalyzing moment. In the case of Attica, there were actually a series of events that led to the ultimate revolt in September 1971.

George Jackson‘s death was one in a line of grievances that contributed to creating the climate where a prison revolt was more likely to happen at Attica than not. Yet it was not “the” trigger. It was a contributing factor and a moment that provided a platform for the organizing that was already happening at the prison.

Between the late 1960s and the early 1980s, there were over three hundred prison “riots” across the U.S., Attica was the best known among these. These uprisings became symbolic of the larger civil unrest that had engulfed the country. As Foucault has observed, because they are total institutions with strong control over individuals’ lives, prisons will always engender resistance.

The official report of the New York State Special Commission on Attica also commonly referred to as the McKay Commission report provides us with the most extensive documentation of what happened before, during and after the Attica Rebellion. The preface of the official report suggested that “Attica is every prison; and every prison is Attica” to make the case that there was nothing unique about Attica that led to the revolt. In other words, the Attica uprising could have happened in any prison across the U.S.

From September 9 to 13, 1971, prisoners took control of the Attica Correctional Facility. They made a series of demands to prison administrators and held about 40 people as hostages. After four days of fruitless negotiations, Nelson Rockefeller ordered that the prison be retaken; 39 people were killed in a 15 minute assault by state police. The New York State Special Commission on Attica appointed to investigate the uprising suggested that: “With the exception of Indian massacres in the late 19th century, the State Police assault which ended the four-day prison uprising was the bloodiest one-day encounter between Americans since the Civil War.”

Antecedents to the Attica Revolt

The McKay Commission suggested that during the summer of 1971 prisoners at Attica launched a sociology class that was led by their peers. This was preceded by the formation of several study and discussion groups led by prisoners who had affiliations with the Nation of Islam, the Black Panther Party, the Young Lords and the Five Percenters. Carl Jones-EL, one of the founders of the Attica Liberation Faction explains:

“The education department, the school system that they have, it only goes so far, far as trying to give a man an education. We more or less have to educate ourselves. When we came here [Attica] we knew the conditions and we felt that people should come together and get a better understanding of the conditions here, what was being did to them by the administration. So behind this we would hold meetings in the yard. We’d hold open house and whoever wanted to come and listen to our political ideology were welcome. We didn’t bar anyone. This was frowned upon by the institution and they would break it up. If we congregated too big, this wasn’t allowed. In order to reach everyone, we had to set up some sort of communications. We had to get along with the different factions here: the Muslims, the Fiver Per-centers, and all the other factions to become one solid movement, rather than just be separate parts here trying to accomplish the same things, better conditions for the inmates .”

These informal gatherings provided a forum for prisoners to debate and discuss the social and political issues of the day. The McKay Commission found that these prisoner-created spaces politicized and radicalized inmates and contributed to a series of protests in the summer of 1971.

In June 1971, five Attica Prisoners established the Attica Liberation Faction (ALF). The five founders were Frank Lott (who took on the title of Chairman), Donald Noble, Carl Jones-El, Herbert X. Blyden, and Peter Butler. Carl Jones-EL suggested that the ALF was founded:

“to try to bring about some change in the conditions of Attica. We started teaching political ideology to ourselves. We read Marx, Lenin, Trotsky, Malcolm X, de Bois, Frederick Douglass and a lot of others. We tried a reform program on ourselves first before we started making petitions and so forth. We would hold political classes on weekends and point out that certain conditions were taking place and the money that was being made even though we weren’t getting the benefits .”

Lee Bernstein (2010) provides some background about the founders of the Attica Liberation Faction:

“These five – Frank Lott, Herbert X. Blyden, Donald Noble, Carl Jones-El, and Peter Butler – were among the most experienced activists in Attica. Blyden had participated in a rebellion at the Tombs prison in New York City the previous year, helping to write the rebels’ list of demands. Others had been involved in a sit-down strike at Auburn prison. Blyden is credited with demanding that the prisoners be transported to a nonimperialist country as a condition of ending the takeover. While deemed impractical by one of the outside observers, this demand grew logically from the political education many inmates received while in prison. Blyden and Jones served on the negotiating committee during the takeover. Blyden was a member of Attica’s Nation of Islam community, and Carl Jones-El and Donald Noble were members of the prison’s Moorish Science community. (Bernstein, p.67-68)”

In July 1971, the Attica Liberation Faction presented a list of 27 demands to Commissioner of Corrections Russell Oswald and Governor Nelson Rockefeller. This list of demands was based on the Folsom Prisoners’ Manifesto which had been crafted in support of a November 1970 prisoner strike in California. Carl Jones-EL offered this description of the genesis of the manifesto and the prisoner’s motivations:

“We wanted to do things, let’s say, diplomatically. We were seeking reform. Although, many were not in favor of reform, because they didn’t believe that the people would listen. So, five of us had gotten together. This is how we started. We met in the yard and we’d draw up drafts as to proposals we should make. And we sought support from the entire population, the four different blocks. And the only way we could accomplish this was that by us not being able to see everyone in different blocks, we, more or less, had to get on the traveling list. In other words, if you were a baseball, a football, a softball official, and you were in a position to travel and get around to different blocks. So we did this. One of us would go to different blocks, and there we would set up an educational program, and bring to their attention what the manifesto was going to be about. So we got a lot of support on this. Then we moved on it. Everyone was not in favor of signing their names to it though, because they didn’t want to spotlight themselves. So five of us did .”

Commissioner Oswald did not act on the demands instead the warden of Attica, Vincent Mancusi, responded “by increasing the frequency of cell searches, censoring all references to prison conditions from news sources, and announcing that there would be no prizes awarded to the winners of the upcoming Labor Day sporting competitions (Bernstein, p. 69).”

Donald Noble, a member of the Attica Liberation Faction, explains what the prisoners hoped to accomplish through the Manifesto:

“Well, I’m one of the men whose name was on the manifesto [that] was submitted to Oswald. We submitted a manifesto, 28 demands, to Oswald in July. We also submitted one to Rockefeller. We also submitted one to Shirley Chilsolm. We also submitted one to Arthur Eve and different other legislative people and lawyers and so forth. You know, we got a beautiful reply back from Oswald, think it was sometime in August. He acknowledged our letter and so forth, and he was enthused about the way the manifesto was drawn up, because this was more or less coincide with his ideas. And he stated that he is for all these here changes that we talked about, because he sees that they are needed, but to give him time. And, everybody went along with him, because a lot of us have had dealings with Oswald for years, coming back and forth while he’s sitting on the parole board. Like there was things that all he had to do was more or less get in touch with the warden here that would have gone into effect. And these things more or less didn’t take place. […] He said he was going to look into these things, but they would take time. So he came here. He made a speech, but the speech he made, a lot of people didn’t like it because he talked about long range things. But people wanted to know what he gonna do about the problem what exists here .”

When George Jackson was killed by correctional officers at San Quentin Prison in August 1971, his killing sparked protests including work stoppages at prisons across the U.S. At Attica, the different prisoner factions, that had previously found it difficult to unify in order to strengthen the likelihood that their demands would be enacted, were mobilized by the killing of Jackson. Donald Noble, one of the founders of the Attica Liberation Faction, explained it this way:

“What really solidified things was George Jackson’s death. This had a reaction on the people, one that we were trying to accomplish all along, to bring the people together. We thought, ‘How can we pay tribute to George Jackson?’ because a lot of us idolized him and things that he was doing and things that he was exposing about the system. So, we decided that we would have a silent fast that whole day in honor of him. We would wear black armbands. No one was to eat anything that whole day. We noted that if the people could come together for this, then they could come together for other things .”

The next week saw another peaceful protest through a takeover of the hospital area by prisoners. It was actually a mundane altercation between two prisoners and some guards on September 8th 1971 that finally precipitated the revolt on the next day.

The Attica prison uprising was the most dramatic and deadly of the post-Jackson killing protests. However the seeds of the revolt had been sown way before Jackson’s death.

Jul 26 2011

More Cameras in Schools: Hypercriminalization and Youth of Color

I came across a report on NBC Chicago about the fact that the Chicago Public Schools (CPS) are planning to sink $7 million dollars into new security cameras. In order to understand the insanity of this proposal, you need to realize that CPS has a $612 million dollar budget deficit and has already laid off 100 teachers at the end of June with more layoffs planned in the next school year. The priorities of the school system seem to be warped. However upon deeper reflection, you might actually reconsider this view. In Chicago and in many cities across the U.S., it has become more important to criminalize youth than to actually educate them. Understanding the CPS proposal within that context makes it much more rational.

I am in the process of reading a new book by sociologist Victor Rios titled “Punished: Policing the Lives of Black and Latino Boys.” Rios’s thesis is that “criminalization was a central, pervasive and ubiquitous phenomenon that impacted the everyday lives of the young people [he] studied in Oakland.” He adds:

“By the time they formally entered the penal system, many of these young men were already caught up in a spiral of hypercriminalization and punishment. The cycle began before their first arrest — it began as they were harassed, profiled, watched, and disciplined at young ages, before they had committed any crimes. Eventually, that kind of attention led many of them to fulfill the destiny expected of them.”

Rios defines hypercriminalization as “the process by which an individual’s everyday behaviors and styles become ubiquitously treated as deviant, risky, threatening, or criminal, across social contexts.” It is easy to see the cameras in schools as another part of what Rios calls the “youth control complex.” That complex is defined as “a system in which schools, police, probation officers, families, community centers, the media, businesses, and other institutions systemically treat young people’s everyday behaviors as criminal activity.”

For those who have been regularly reading this blog, you know that I have been making arguments similiar to the ones offered by Rios from the inception of Prison Culture. I argued in a post about Biggie Smalls’ Ready to Die album that youth of color are automatically suspect and inscribed with the identity of “criminal.” An identity which they do not have the option to put on and take off at will. I made a similar argument about the criminalization of youth identity through laws prohibiting sagging pants and so on and so forth. I look forward to continuing to read Rios’s book which is a great introduction for anyone who is interested in better understanding the process of youth criminalization in 21st century America.

For those who are interested in more readings about the criminalization of youth, I refer you to a reading list that I offered here a few months ago on the topic.

Jul 24 2011

Attica’s Still On My Mind: Here’s My Poem of the Day

Here’s another poem about the Attica Prison Revolt from the edited volume titled “Betcha Ain’t: Poems from Attica.”

Sept. 13
By Christopher Sutherland

Let the drums roll
Give the first command
That puts us in the ground

R-E-A-D-Y!

We stiffen our shoulders
Hold our heads up high
Let the world take note
That proud, black men
Are here about to die

A-A-A-I-M!

If our actions
Cause brothers and sisters to unite
As we die,
In their fighting spirits we live.
So let the drums roll
And damn that final order that us in
The ground…
F-I-R-E!

Christopher Sutherland – Multi-talented (poet, musician) and eyes that appear to pierce the soul – an early standout in the group sessions.

For those interested in a short primer on some of what happened 40 years ago, here is a short clip (under 10 minutes) from the documentary “Disturbing the Universe” about the lawyer William Kunstler who served as an observer and negotiator at Attica during the revolt.

Note: If you are in the Chicago area any time between September 6-8, you are invited to a photographic exhibition about the Attica Rebellion that will be taking place at Mess Hall, 6932 N. Glenwood Ave. In particular, we will be having a reception and reading on September 8th from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. to commemorate the 40th Anniversary of the Attica Rebellion. All are invited.

Jul 21 2011

Resistance to Convict Lease System #1: First-Hand Accounts by Women Reformers

Other women are thrilled when they get gifts of jewelery or perhaps a new pair of shoes. Well, not me. I was out of town last week and returned to find an envelope waiting for me. I opened it and upon seeing the content, I started doing a happy Snoopy dance. Thanks E, you totally know the way to a girl’s heart. So you may be wondering about what could have made me so happy, well it was an original 1923 pamphlet documenting the practice of convict leasing in Alabama. It was written by a committee appointed by the Alabama Federation of Women's Clubs. This 6-page pamphlet printed on 8 1/2 by 11 paper double- sided is so old that the paper is yellowed and frayed. However it is chock-full of interesting and important information about Convict Leasing in the South. OK, I give you permission to think it; “That girl sure is weird.” Though I prefer to think of myself as “endearingly eccentric.”

I recently learned that Douglas Blackmon’s excellent book “Slavery By Another Name” which addresses the history of the leasing system is being turned into a documentary that is slated to air on PBS in 2012. I periodically get emails from folks asking me for information about the Convict Lease system and I usually recommend that book. I am definitely not an expert on the topic nor am I a historian but I have and do read a lot about the prisoner contract system. I have already addressed this issue in a general way here, here, and here. There will be more to come in the coming months.

In the meantime, let’s get back to “the report of the committee on the investigation of convict lease and contract system appointed by the Alabama Federation of Women’s Clubs.” I have previously touched upon the essential role that women have played in prison reform efforts throughout history. The members of the Alabama Federation of Women’s Clubs fall squarely within that tradition. Here is how the committee members (all of them women) introduce their 1923 report on the leasing system: [I have faithfully transcribed the words as they were written]

The Alabama Federation of Women’s Clubs has opposed the Convict Lease System for more than eight years. In an effort to gain first hand information concerning present conditions, a committee was appointed to visit the mines and lumber camps where convicts are leased.

We as daughters of the great commonwealth of Alabama and as members of the Federation of Woman’s Clubs were sent as a committee to investigate the mines and lumber camps where state prisoners are leased or employed under the contract system and to find out the actual conditions under which they live. Between the twenty-seventh and thirtieth of June visits were made to: the Banner Mines at Littleton, The Belle Ellen Mines at Blocton, the Aldrich Mines at Montevallo, the Lumber Mills at River Falls.

We started with an acknowledged prejudice against this system of selling the labor of convicted persons, but with a desire to find out what was best in the plan as well as what was worst and with an earnest prayer that we might be led to see and judge aright. We returned convinced more than ever that this system permits great wrongs, is destructive of the best manhood in the prisoners and is totally unworthy of a great state.

Below are excerpts from their report describing the Convict Lease System in Alabama in the early part of the 20th century:


“Each man is assigned a day’s task – so many tons of coal to dig and load. The men are divided into groups of seven or eight under the leadership of a check-runner as the boss man is called. The check runner is given the responsibility of seeing that the men complete the day’s task. He is a convict chosen we were told by a deputy warden very often for his known desperate character, which may serve perhaps to terrorize the men under him. The check-runner, convicts told us, is instructed that at whatever cost of labor on the part of the convict or whatever means of compulsion he himself may use he must see that the day’s task is completed. The only objective set before him is the tonnage for the company. Think what this means to the young first offender who may be sent to the mines for no greater offense than the boyish prank of stealing a ride on a freight train, a reckless youth, but not a confirmed criminal. All of his working day, he is under the control of a brutal, unintelligent, and perhaps hardened criminal.

No lashes or whips are used in the mine, but the stout staff that all miners use to help them in their progress through the mine is always at hand. In the absence of the warden and in control of the check-runner, these sticks have been used as clubs. Suppose a man does not complete his day’s task or that his work lags behind, he may be beaten or cuffed by the check-runner. If he resists or if he fights, he will probably be reported to the warden for discipline. We believe that the use of convict check-runners in the mine is brutal and is a source of injustice that an honorable state should not condone.

[...]

The lash, we are glad to say, is no longer used as a method of punishment. In its place confinement in punishment cells known as dog-houses, has been substituted. The dog-houses are coffin-like boxes standing on end, dark, narrow, and ventilated only by air holes at the top. Some of them are worse than others. The worst ones we saw were ventilated by a small hole in the top of the door not more than two inches square. Members of the committee tried squeezing in to the cell. It was like stepping into the half compartment of an old fashioned wardrobe, only the cell was considerably narrower. In fact it was so narrow that it seemed a large man could only get in at all by holding his arms over his head. In some places, we were glad to see that a slatted door had taken the place of the solid boards. In some of the dog-cells, we saw the handcuffs which were fitted on a man to make his confinement in the punishment cells even more galling. The time of punishment according to the statement of various wardens varied from forty minutes to forty-eight hours. In showing one of these cells one warden told us that a man could live there only eight hours. Another warden told us that the state physician had approved of the ventilation. In spite of this, this form of discipline seemed to us worse than the Black Hole of Calcutta.

[...]

The wardens said that prisoners were punished for refusing to work, for fighting, and for breaking rules. Prisoners told us that they were punished for failure to get out the required number of tons a day or for refusing to work over-time. Our most severe criticism of the punishment system is (1) that the warden who administers the punishment does not go into the mines and (2) that the dog-cells permits a form of torture being administered which could not fail to injure the physical efficiency of any prisoner and which we cannot believe would help him morally.

[...]

Payment is made to the prisoners for coal dug in addition to the task. Of course we approve this provision for some pay to the convicts. It is a commendable arrangement provided the task is not too heavy and provided it is left to the voluntary decision of the prisoner. If it is true as we were told by prisoners in two mines that refusal to work for this extra pay meant punishment, we are not certain that we should give it our full endorsement.

We asked to be taken into the mines, but it proved to be impracticable. We went some fifty or sixty feet unto the entrance of the mine at Belle Ellen and at Aldrich and found the path so slippery with water, and the tunnel so dark and low that we could not safely proceed without an experienced guide. For this reason we have to depend entirely on what the wardens and the prisoners told us about the way they work in the mine. At Aldrich a man on the night shift told us that they entered the mine at five-thirty in the evening but that it took them until seven to get to the place where they were digging coal, the hour and a half being necessary for them to proceed stumbling through the dark, falling over rock and bent half double because of the low walls to the night’s work. They worked until five-thirty in the morning when another hour and a half must be added to the toil of the day so that they reach the mouth of the mines at seven. In all this is practically fourteen hours of labor.

Here and there in the prisons, we found men with a life sentence or sentence for a long period of years, who have served for years and have good prison records. They begged us to use our influence to have them pardoned or paroled as they had no family or friends on the outside to interest themselves in their welfare. Of course, we had no opportunity or authority to make a careful study of any concrete cases. But may we suggest that the Federation should use its influence to have a parole commissioner investigate all such cases in the prisons.

[...]

Our conclusion is that the present state officials as well as those of the last administration have made earnest effort to bring the prisons to the best possible condition under the present system; but that the system is inherently wrong. It is wrong for the following reasons:
1. It permits a miscarriage of justice as sometimes the sentence of imprisonment pronounced by the courts has been changed to death.
2. It permits first offenders to be controlled almost entirely by hardened criminals.
3. It increases the burden of the state and society by making cripples.
4. It increases the burden of the state and of society in making criminals. (A warden told us that fifty per cent of his charges were repeaters)
5. It considers the profit in money to the state and to the leasing company as more important than the latent human value of the convict.

We believe that the responsibility of removing this false system should be shared by every patriotic citizen of Alabama. We believe that the present Governor and legislature have it in their power to make their term of office a blessing to the state by abolishing the Lease Contract System.

Respectfully submitted,
Mrs. F.L. Cade
Mrs. Oscar Dugger
Mrs. S. J. Cole
Mrs. Priestly Toulmin
Mrs. Brevard Jones

The first thing that came to mind for me after I finished reading the pamphlet was: “How far along would we be today in reforming(ending) prisons if current members of the Chicago Junior League started visiting TAMMS Supermax and issuing reports about their findings? How about if members of the AKA or DELTA sororities started writing exposes on police violence in our cities? It seems implausible but then again I’ve learned that history does often repeat itself. And it does seem that we have historical precedent for such involvement by women’s clubs in criminal legal reform efforts. Here’s hoping for a revival of such activism…

Over the next few weeks, I will write about the actual lived experiences of black prisoners (in particular) in Alabama from 1865-1900. I am reading a book focused on this topic and am learning all sorts of interesting information. It’s wonderful to be learning about the context of the emergence of the convict lease system in the South. Also, because I am a total nerd, I own a copy of a report of the Alabama board of inspectors of convicts from 1902 to 1904. This report is particularly useful for the detailed information that it provides about Alabama prisoners at the turn of the last century. I will share some of that information in coming weeks too. For now, I hope that you found the words of the women from the Alabama Federation of Women’s Clubs affecting, illuminating, and ultimately inspiring. It gives me solace to remember that there were many who came before us who were fighting for justice. We should learn from and build upon their legacies. Oh and also, pamphlets are awesome. More pamphlets, that’s what I say.

Jul 20 2011

Guest Post: Creating Crime Waves

I am excited to share this guest blog post by my friend Frank Edwards.  Frank is a Chicago-based anti-prison organizer, information activist, researcher and writer.  He serves on the leadership team of the excellent publication called AREA Chicago. Frank just recently completed his masters degree at Depaul University where he focused on media coverage of youth “crime.”

Creating crime waves

By Frank Edwards

Those of you in Chicago probably saw this cover on the Red Eye last week, or this story in the Chicago Tribune.  If this news reporting is to be believed, Chicago is facing a growing problem of robbery on public transit.  John Hilkevitch of the Tribune claimed this increase is due to “young thugs stealing smartphones from passengers.”  When I saw this cover walking to the el, my immediate reaction was shock.  Shock that on a system that has millions of riders every month, a meager total of 59 robberies somehow has become a crisis that needs to be dealt with.  I was also haunted by the knowledge that this kind of exaggeration of the dangerousness of public spaces (such as recent unfounded panics in Boystown) often leads to increased policing, harassment, and incarceration of young people of color.

Crime and the media

Newspapers are incredibly good at constructing crime waves.  At the most basic level, crime coverage sells papers (in line with the adage “If it bleeds, it leads”), and media outlets want to do everything they can to sell their product.  Thus, anything that can be labeled as a new trend in crime is a hot commodity in the news room.  Plenty of research has shown that even despite decreases in the number of crimes that occur, the news continues to increase the amount of coverage dedicated to crime. For example, between 1990 and 1998, there was a 33% decrease in murders nationally, but news coverage of murder increased by 473%.  Just with this information, we know that newspapers have a direct incentive to publish heavy volumes of crime news regardless of whether what they are reporting is an accurate representation of what is really happening.

This isn’t the whole story though.  When newspapers do publish crime news, they almost always portray Black and Latino youth as violent and dangerous, reinforcing racist stereotypes that people of color are “naturally” criminal.  This overrepresentation, of course, is not justified even by official arrest statistics, which reflect racist patterns of policing and arrest.

Lastly, people who consume crime news regularly are often more afraid of crime than those who do not, and will rank crime as a more important political issue than those who don’t bother to read or watch crime news.  In her book Making Crime Pay, Kathy Beckett demonstrated that public opinion about the importance of crime jumps dramatically after spikes in news media coverage in crime, suggesting that the news has a very active role in shaping public opinion about how much crime there is and how important it is for politicians and law enforcement to deal with.

What does all of this have to do with the Red Eye, the Tribune and coverage of robbery on the CTA?  On the one hand, these stories fit the same pattern of misleading the public about how often crime occurs, while on the other, they use coded language to suggest that commuters should be afraid of young people of color, and police should be doing more to control them.  Over time, this kind of reporting directly contributes to the kinds of racial disproportionality we see in both the juvenile justice system and the adult criminal justice system.

So let’s break this story down a little bit.

Numbers sometimes lie

The Tribune reported this data as such:

There were 581 robberies reported on CTA property in Chicago in 2010, averaging 48 a month, and 294 robberies January through May this year, an average of 59 a month, a 23 percent increase, according to the most recent statistics the Chicago Police Department released under a Tribune Freedom of Information Act request.

However, they do very little to tell us how uncommon robbery on the CTA is.

In 2010, people took 516,891,783 rides on the CTA (both buses and trains)(pdf).  If there were 581 robberies on the CTA in 2010, than means that there was about one robbery for every 900,000 rides taken on the CTA.  Put another way, in 2010, you would have about a one in 900,000 (.00011%) chance of getting robbed each time you got on a bus or train.

For the first 5 months of 2011, people took 214,331,782 rides on CTA buses and trains (pdf).  With 294 robberies during these months, that means that there was about one robbery for every 730,000 rides taken on the CTA.  Your odds of getting robbed every time you got on the train or bus would be about one in 730,000 or .00013%.  Your odds of winning $100,000 in the Illinois Little Lotto (1 in 575,757) are better than the odds of you getting robbed each time you get on the CTA.

From the numbers, it’s clear that the Trib is grasping for straws, trying to make a story out of nothing.  While there is an increase, it’s far from massive, and certainly isn’t grounds for front page news.

What the story says to readers: be afraid!

In case you were wondering who the Trib thinks transit riders should be scared of, they make it obvious by calling them “young thugs”.  In Chicago, as in most places around the country, the term “thug” has clearly loaded racial and gender connotations.

Quoting a police officer, the Trib suggests that commuters must remain alert and afraid.  “I’m wearing my uniform and he said, ‘Just a minute, just a minute.’ Then he realizes I am a police officer,” the commander said. “I told him someone is going to punch you or take your phone. We see it all day long.”

They attribute this perhaps insignificant increase to “youths ages 11 to 19 stealing smartphones from CTA passengers. Most of the phones taken are Apple iPhones, said authorities, who urged CTA riders to keep their smartphones out of sight.”  They are suggesting that middle class transit riders sporting expensive electronics need to be especially afraid of young people of color (as indicated by the “thug” coded reference).

So the Trib and RedEye both are continuing the trend of pushing for the criminalization of black and brown youth by encouraging their middle class readership to be constantly afraid.  It’s a big picture problem, but it happens at small levels every day in the paper, and one reason that every time I see a crime story, I cringe.

 

 

Jul 19 2011

Guest Post: Solidarity through Prison Radio (Thousand Kites) – A Report-Back from the Allied Media Conference

This is a the first of what I hope to be many guest posts to Prison Culture. This post is written by my friend Lewis Wallace. Lewis is a long-term anti-prison activist, writer, performer, artist and all around Renaissance man. He is based out of Chicago. I am grateful to have an opportunity to regularly collaborate with Lewis in dismantling the PIC and creating a more just world.

I recently had the opportunity to go to Detroit for the Allied Media Conference, held in Detroit annually every year. One of the conference tracks was called “Resisting the Incarceration Nation.” The track was led by organizers from around the country who are working to reform and/or dismantle the prison system, using creative media tools in the process.

I was particularly inspired by an organization based in rural Kentucky and Virginia called Thousand Kites. Thousand Kites does solidarity work with prisoners through performance, video, and radio. “Kite” is prison slang for a message; throwing a kite means passing along a message. This workshop was focused on their weekly radio program, “Calls from Home,” a broadcast that transmits messages from families, friends and supporters of incarcerated people through prison walls via a local radio station. “Calls from Home” has a very interesting story behind it, which the workshop facilitators shared; I am going to try to recount that story based on notes and memory, with major apologies to the organizers for any inaccuracies. I was deeply moved by their story and approach.

Thousand Kites began with a community radio station called Appalshop based in Whitesburg, Kentucky, in the Appalachians (WWMT 88.7 FM). When Appalshop started, the local people there had been the targets of a lot of media attention because of the War on Poverty, but felt like they weren’t being represented accurately in the media. They were represented as isolated, ignorant victims, not as people with their own culture and resourcefulness. They created a radio station to focus on local Appalachian culture; “The underlying philosophy has always been that Appalachian people must tell their own stories and solve their own problems,” their website said.

The vast majority of people living outside prison walls in rural Kentucky and Virginia are white. Not so for the people living inside of prison walls. For some time, Appalshop had one hip-hop show, once a week, for one hour. Well, it turns out that area in Eastern Kentucky and Western Virginia has nine different prisons located out there in the mountains. Two are supermax prisons, which means the people who live there are kept in solitary confinement almost all the time. Some of the prisons in the area are private, and have contracts with states all over the place to keep people there, thousands of miles from home in the middle of the mountains. Even from within Virginia or Kentucky, most of the people in captivity in that area are from urban places and many are African-American men. This one hip-hop show, called “Holla to the Hood,” was a source of comfort to people who loved hip-hop and were isolated from their home communities. The show’s creators began to receive letters from many of the men in the private prisons, documenting the extreme abuse and isolation. Eventually, in response to this letter-writing, a campaign grew to draw attention to the abusive practices at the supermax facilities, and to advocate for people being detained far from home to be returned to their home communities.

One of these campaigns, focused on a group of people who were transported all the way from the Virgin Islands to be kept in facilities in the Appalachians, partnered with a radio station in the Virgin Islands and with an organization called the Virgin Islands Prison Project. The campaign was successful! The men were moved to facilities in the Virgin Islands—still incarcerated (which I disagree with on my own abolitionist principles), but able to be visited by family and friends more easily. The Appalshop folks also partnered with organizations in Richmond, VA, in Pittsburgh, and in Connecticut to campaign against the prisons’ abuses.

Through this process, they realized that radio was an amazing way to stay in communication with people inside area prisons. Not all people in captivity have consistent radio access (especially in supermax facilities where many so-called privileges are restricted), but many do. They also learned from the prisoners’ letters that it was extremely difficult for them to keep in touch with their families; the prisons are located in unbelievably inaccessible places, even if you are coming from within Virginia (imagine a supermax facility on top of a mountain, for example). Visits are expensive, often prohibitively so, and phone calls are also a huge rip-off—controlled and overcharged by corporations who have exclusive deals with prison systems or private prison corporations. Radio waves, however, can’t be controlled by prison officials. So, Appalshop/Thousand Kites started “Calls from Home,” a show that allows the families, friends, or anybody who has a message for people incarcerated in this region to call in and leave a message. The messages are strung together each week into a radio broadcast, heard by all who are able to tune in, inside and outside prison walls.

The radio show has had many positive effects on the surrounding community, within and outside of the prisons. One is that families and friends can call a toll-free number with messages of comfort, love, support, holiday messages, and so on; these are broadcast to everyone which can help build community and personal connections between incarcerated people. It has also helped raise awareness in the majority-white region about the lives of the people who are being held inside prisons there; a lot of times prison guards, who were white, had only ever encountered an African-American person in the context of imprisoning them. According to the workshop presenters, some locals campaigned against the show initially; others, including prison guards, have expressed that they found the show illuminating because it connected them to the simple fact that incarcerated people have families, friends, and love in their lives, all rendered invisible by the physical isolation and control inherent to imprisonment.

One of the things that made this workshop so effective was that after explaining this whole history, the presenters went on to explain exactly how it is that they go about making “Calls from Home” work. It’s actually very simple. They have a toll-free number, 877-410-4863. Anyone can call from anywhere. Callers leave messages throughout the week. Every Sunday evening, they collect the messages through a Skype account and replay them into a basic audio recording/editing program. They then string the messages together into a radio show (yes, they occasionally have to edit out inappropriate messages, like sexual stuff or stuff that would put the program or people inside at risk). All the technology used to create the show is very simple and free to download (Skype, Audio Hijack and Audacity); Appalshop puts it on the air every week and voila!

Thousand Kites is in the process of creating a toolkit to help others start prison radio shows. I was so inspired by this and began to think about the possibilities for staying in touch and supporting family and community connections with incarcerated people in Illinois. It seems a little limited because we are based in Chicago, where the airwaves are very crowded; plus many of the people who are incarcerated here are far, far downstate. My friend and penpal who is in Tamms Supermax does not even have radio “privileges.” So, it’s not an option for everyone. Still, Thousand kites is doing a really amazing form of solidarity that also has concrete connections to and uses in organizing campaigns. Check out their website http://www.thousandkites.org/ or http://www.callsfromhome.org. You can listen to the show, and you can call the number anytime and leave a message yourself: 877-410-4863. We did that ourselves during the workshop and the listeners down in Kentucky and Virginia got our message of support and solidarity that very next week. Extra credit if you come up with brilliant ideas for how to use radio to reach incarcerated people in Illinois and email us (lewispants@gmail.com).

Jul 18 2011

Prisoners Pay More: The Commissary Boondoggle

I thought that some readers would find it interesting to know just how much stuff costs at Illinois prison commissaries.


Prisoners who do not have a job currently receive up to $10.00 “state pay” each month. This amount has not been increased in many years. Additionally, Illinois Department of Corrections (IDOC) usually deducts 3-4% from the $10.00 to cover housing costs. And sometimes the “state pay” is not in fact paid. The “state pay” is used to cover other costs the prisoner has that are not covered by the IDOC. For example:

* Deodorant-$2-4.00 on commissary. None supplied.
* Toothpaste-$2-4.00 on commissary. Not supplied on a consistent basis or at all.
* Toothbrushes-$0.50 on commissary. Very rarely supplied by IDOC.
* Soap- small (1″ by 2″) bars-nondeoderant, provided to each inmate each week. $0.40 per bar at commissary.
* Shampoo. $1-3.00 at commissary. None provided
* Laundry detergent-$4-5.00 at commissary. None provided.
* Lotions-$2-4.00 on commissary. None provided
* Shaving Equipment-one single edge razor provided at most once per week. Usually, 2-3 times per month.
* Shaving equipment-electric razor or trimmer combs purchased from $10-50.00 from commissary.
* Fans-cell houses have no air conditioning. General population cells have no windows. Fan costs $25.00 from commissary.
* Legal services-copies of legal decisions and other similar materials at $0.05 per Pages.
* Food-IDOC provides three meals a day (quality questionable). Additional food, coffee, condiments, etc., must be purchased from commissary.
* Clothing-currently, inmates are fortunate if they receive two pairs of boxers, socks, twoT-shirts, one blue shirt, one pair of pants from IDOC. Due to budget cuts, this happens only once per year. Formerly, an inmate would receive these items four times per year. Inmates do not receive boots, even during winter months, other than slipper-type shoes. Regular shoes must be purchased from commissary. Costs range from $12-66.00.
* A towel and washcloth may be given 1-2 times per year.
* All electronics must be purchased from commissary. Extension cords, cable cords, headphones, TV’s, radios, splitters, lights, light bulbs, batteries, razors, etc.
* Cold/allergy/pain relievers are purchased from commissary. The nurses/med techs formerly provided the at the cost of the $2.00 co-pay, but don’t have them anymore.
* Envelopes/paper/pens to write to family, friends are not provided and must be purchased from commissary. An envelope with stamp currently costs $0.53.

(H/T to the Illinois Institute for Community Law and Affairs for this information)

Note: No sooner had I posted this was I reminded that the vast majority of the items listed above are not full sized but travel sized items. Thanks Dan for the reminder.