Sep 30 2011

Sagging Pants, Hypercriminalization and School Pushout…

I came across this “ad” on a friend’s Facebook wall today.

Some people’s first reaction to this “ad” might be to chuckle at its utter ridiculousness. Surely the purveyors of this ad are not advocating that young people who wear sagging pants go to jail for this?!!!?? Unfortunately though, the reality is that some legislators are in fact advocating fines and community service for young people who don’t “pull up their pants.” Here’s an example from New Orleans:

Here’s an ad from a state senator in New York that attempts to couch the “war on sagging” within a historical context of racism.

The key sentence in the video for me is: “If we raise our pants, we raise our image.” The concept of being a “credit to one’s race” is deeply embedded in African American history. The state senator seems to be embracing the legacy of Booker T. Washington through his video. The sad thing is that for many African American youth pulling up their pants will NOT shift the deeply embedded image that the culture has of them as being “criminal” or “disposable.” It’s not about the clothes. Instead it is about what Amos Wilson has written:

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

In the past, I have written about attempts to criminalize youth of color by outlawing sagging pants and have connected this to the way that prison clothing is used as a marker of criminality.

A few weeks ago I wrote briefly about Victor Rios’ new book “Punished: Policing the Lives of Black and Latino Boys.” In the book, Rios coins the term “youth control complex” which 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.” The “war on sagging pants” is a perfect illustration of this “youth control complex” in action.

Rios writes about the impact of the “youth control complex” on the lives of young people of color:

Young people, who become pinballs within this youth control complex, experience what I refer to as hypercriminalization, the process by which an individual’s everyday behaviors and styles become ubiquitously treated as deviant, risky, threatening or criminal, across social contexts.

This hypercriminalization, in turn, has a profound impact on young people’s perceptions, worldviews, and life outcomes. The youth control complex creates an overarching system of regulating the lives of marginalized young people, what I refer to as punitive social control.

Hypercriminalization involves constant punishment. Punishment, in this study, is understood as the process by which individuals come to feel stigmatized, outcast, shamed, defeated, or hopeless as a result of negative interactions and sanctions imposed by individuals who represent institutions of social control.

These days, ground zero of the “youth control complex” can be found in our nation’s schools. Dr. Aaron Kupchik who studies school discipline issues has found that schools with large minority populations are more likely to have metal detectors. None of you will be surprised by this finding. However I want to make the point that the crackdown on sagging pants is integrally related to the types of zero tolerance policies enacted in most urban schools. In fact, some schools have begun to punish students who wear sagging pants on school property. It comes full circle.

Kupchick and his colleague Goeff Ward are particularly concerned about the use of metal detectors in schools.

Unlike the other four measures, Kupchik identifies metal detectors as invasive (“kids are patted down like they’re going through airport security”) and disruptive to learning environments.

Further, he adds, metal detectors are more heavily aligned with the criminal justice system, and unlike locked gates, which restrict outside elements from coming into the schools, detectors presume students guilty of bringing items inside.

Scholars, educators, and young people from across the country are sounding the alarm about the intersection between schooling and youth hypercriminalization. From October 1 to 8, the Dignity in Schools Campaign (DSC), a coalition of educators and organizers, is spearheading the National Week of Action on School Pushout. The Dignity in Schools Campaign’s National Week of Action brings together organizations and individuals from 13 states to call for an end to zero tolerance policies, for the implementation of positive approaches to discipline, like restorative justice practices and positive behavior supports instead of relying solely on suspensions and expulsions, and for the passage of federal legislation that promotes positive school climates.

I suggest that everyone read the Week of Action Platform (PDF) to learn about what’s at stake in the education of young people across the U.S. You can also find fact sheets about how these issues on playing out in your state on their website. Below is an example of one of their fact sheets:

Sep 29 2011

‘Things Fall Apart:’ Youth Resist Institutional Violence…

Years ago, I served on the board of an organization that I still love called the Young Women's Empowerment Project (YWEP). YWEP is not to be confused with the Rogers Park Young Women's Action Team (YWAT), a youth-led group that I co-founded and have written about before.

Regular readers of this blog know that I am a prison abolitionist. I have written often about my ideas and thoughts about abolition here. I am often asked about what would happen to all of the “bad” people if there were no prisons. There are tons of people who others would consider “bad” who aren’t locked in cages. So those questions do not concern me. I do however worry about one thing: the fact that many of the institutions that we would need to rely on in order for abolition to be fully realized are so oppressive and fundamentally broken.

Case in point, yesterday the Chicago Tribune reported that Hartgrove pyschiatric hospital on the Westside of Chicago is basically a hell-hole for young people. Citing a new report from the University of Illinois at Chicago, the Tribune writes:

Among the chilling details in the UIC report on Hartgrove were descriptions of some hospital employees who appeared to be indifferent or too poorly trained to treat seriously mentally ill youth.

One case involved a 16-year-old girl with severe sickle cell anemia who was forced to cope with intense pain for long periods of time. When she became overwhelmed and had emotional outbursts as a result, staff blamed her for not being able to control herself.

A psychiatrist at the facility labeled her behavior as “med-seeking,” according to records.

In another case, employees in May reportedly fractured the arm of a 16-year-old boy, who was not a state ward, apparently because they were not properly trained in restraint techniques.

The Tribune also reports that “[a]bout 100 violent incidents were documented between December 2010 and mid-June 2011, which included physical attacks, uncontrolled threatening behavior and sexual assaults.” I feel sick to my stomach in reading this because I have referred several young people to Hartgrove over the years. I never heard that they were mistreated at the hospital but I have to admit to having followed up with less than half of the youth who I referred there. Once released, they would usually be referred to services closer to where they live. The sickening part of this for me is that I assumed that they would get the help that they needed from the hospital. I know better but I just want to believe that the institutions that are supposed to serve vulnerable youth will not actually harm them. How can I be both so jaded and so trusting at the same time?

I do know better. The young women of YWEP have created a bad encounter line that I have written about previously here. YWEP explains the history and purpose of the bad encounter line:

In 2009, YWEP completed a youth led research study on ways girls and transgender girls in the sex trade & street economy are resistant and resilient to violence. In this research we looked at two categories of violence, individual and institutional. Although both categories had surprising results, we were most surprised at the amount of girls and transgender girls facing violence from institutions- like police, hospitals, social services and even Department Children and Family Service.

We wanted to tackle this problem from a community organizing approach from this idea the Bad Encounter Line (BEL) was born. The BEL is a way to report bad experiences you have had with institutions and tracks the neighborhood, gender and time of day so YWEP can learn more about how we are being harmed.

The Bad Encounter Line is an excellent example of how marginalized young people of color resist institutional violence. It also illustrates the young people’s resilience. I am angry that it has to come to this. However I feel so proud that the youth are mobilizing to bring this violence to light. This is a form of violence in the lives of youth that does not garner media attention or award winning documentaries. Yet it is real and can often be debilitating for young people. YWEP also started a task force called “Street Youth in Motion” which is organizing a community march tomorrow. If you are in Chicago tomorrow, you are invited to support the young people at their demonstration.

The Taskforce wrote a Street Youth Bill of Rights (PDF) that they want all non-profits to sign “to [in their words] make them accountable to us and can’t get away with denying us help!”

Ultimately, I guess that this is what should give me hope. Young people are organizing and demanding accountability from the institutions that should be there to help them. This is another example of transformative justice. So perhaps I don’t have to worry about the promise of abolition after all…

Sep 29 2011

Books about Incarceration for Teens…

By Peter Yahnke

Last week, I received a moving e-mail from a young mother who has a 15 year old son. She wrote to me about some of her struggles with her son. She made a specific request: Could I provide her with a list of books that her son would find entertaining while also addressing the experience of incarceration? Thankfully, I am an avid reader of young adult fiction (YA) and I have indeed come across some books with incarceration themes that I could recommend. I sent her a list earlier this week and thought that other readers of this blog might also be interested in some of these titles.

My hands-down best YA title about incarceration that I read this year was Lockdown (2010) by Walter Dean Meyers. I just love Meyers because he is a master at writing in the voice of young Black boys. The book is best for high school age youth. Here is a short review from Booklist:

Myers takes readers inside the walls of a juvenile corrections facility in this gritty novel. Fourteen-year-old Reese is in the second year of his sentence for stealing prescription pads and selling them to a neighborhood dealer. He fears that his life is headed in a direction that will inevitably lead him “upstate,” to the kind of prison you don’t leave. His determination to claw his way out of the downward spiral is tested when he stands up to defend a weaker boy, and the resulting recriminations only seem to reinforce the impossibility of escaping a hopeless future. Reese’s first-person narration rings with authenticity as he confronts the limits of his ability to describe his feelings, struggling to maintain faith in himself; Myers’ storytelling skills ensure that the messages he offers are never heavy-handed. The question of how to escape the cycle of violence and crime plaguing inner-city youth is treated with a resolution that suggests hope, but doesn’t guarantee it. A thoughtful book that could resonate with teens on a dangerous path.— Ian Chipman

The next book that I recommended is titled “Holes (1998)” by Louis Sachar. This is a book about a young man who is sentenced to boot camp. I will include the Booklist review below. However I really disagree with the reviewer about the final part of this book. It is the realism of the ending that really saved the book for me. My godson absolutely loved this book. He read it when he was in the 7th grade and I think that it was completely age appropriate for him. He has since recommended it to other friends.

Middle-schooler Stanley Yelnats is only the latest in a long line of Yelnats to encounter bad luck, but Stanley’s serving of the family curse is a doozie. Wrongfully convicted of stealing a baseball star’s sneakers, Stanley is sentenced to six months in a juvenile-detention center, Camp Green Lake. “There is no lake at Camp Green Lake,” where Stanley and his fellow campers (imagine the cast from your favorite prison movie, kid version) must dig one five-by-five hole in the dry lake bed every day, ostensibly building character but actually aiding the sicko warden in her search for buried treasure. Sachar’s novel mixes comedy, hard-hitting realistic drama, and outrageous fable in a combination that is, at best, unsettling. The comic elements, especially the banter between the boys (part scared teens, part Cool Hand Luke wanna-bes) work well, and the adventure story surrounding Stanley’s rescue of his black friend Zero, who attempts to escape, provides both high drama and moving human emotion. But the ending, in which realism gives way to fable, while undeniably clever, seems to belong in another book entirely, dulling the impact of all that has gone before. These mismatched parts don’t add up to a coherent whole, but they do deliver a fair share of entertaining and sometimes compelling moments. -— Bill Ott

by Erik Ruin

Another recommendation from the canon of Walter Dean Meyers is Monster (1999). Here is a review from Booklist:

Myers combines an innovative format, complex moral issues, and an intriguingly sympathetic but flawed protagonist in this cautionary tale of a 16-year-old on trial for felony murder. Steve Harmon is accused of acting as lookout for a robbery that left a victim dead; if convicted, Steve could serve 25 years to life. Although it is clear that Steve did participate in the robbery, his level of involvement is questionable, leaving protagonist and reader to grapple with the question of his guilt. An amateur filmmaker, Steve tells his story in a combination of film script and journal. The “handwritten” font of the journal entries effectively uses boldface and different sizes of type to emphasize particular passages. The film script contains minimal jargon, explaining camera angles (CU, POV, etc.) when each term first appears. Myers’ son Christopher provides the black-and-white photos, often cropped and digitally altered, that complement the text. Script and journal together create a fascinating portrait of a terrified young man wrestling with his conscience. The tense drama of the courtroom scenes will enthrall readers, but it is the thorny moral questions raised in Steve’s journal that will endure in readers’ memories. Although descriptions of the robbery and prison life are realistic and not overly graphic, the subject matter is more appropriate for high-school-age than younger readers.— Debbie Carton

I read Paul Volponis’ Rickers High (2010) this summer and I found it gripping and engaging. It has stayed with me all of these weeks later. I highly recommend it for young men of high school age. Here’s the booklist review:

Recasting his specialty-press debut novel, Rikers (2002), for a younger audience, Volponi tracks a juvenile offender’s final 17 days in the New York correctional facility. Though arrested just for telling an undercover cop where to buy weed, Martin has spent five months at Rikers waiting for his case to come up. The experience has made him a canny observer of the prison ecosystem, good at keeping his head down and steering clear of gangs, extortion schemes, brutal correction officers, and other hazards . . . mostly. The author draws authentic situations and characters from his six years of teaching at Rikers, and though his scary cautionary tale is less harrowing than Adam Rapp’s Buffalo Tree (1997) or Walter Dean Myers’ Monster (1999), it is nevertheless an absorbing portrait of life in stir. In the end, Martin walks out on plea-bargained probation, bearing both inner and outer scars. Rare is the reader who won’t find his narrative sobering. — John Peters

The reviewer mentions the book “The Buffalo Tree (1997)” by Adam Rapp. I read that book about 10 years ago. While I personally loved it, the young mother who wrote to me said that her son has some literacy challenges. Because of this, I refrained from recommending books that might prove challenging in terms of language. If you are a grown person or if you are a teenager who likes to be challenged by language, then I highly recommend that you read “The Buffalo Tree.” It is a searing portrayal of life inside a juvenile detention center.

I read “Boot Camp (2007)” by Todd Strasser last year. It was excellent and felt very realistic. I liked this book more than I did “Holes.” I imagine that young people from 10th grade up would also very much enjoy “Boot Camp.”

Louis Sachar’s Holes (1998) described a juvenile detention camp with tall-tale trappings. For a somewhat older audience, this documentary-style novel tackles similar “boot camps” without the fablelike buffer, delivering a troubling glimpse of what might go on in such camps (and backing it up with an author’s note and sources). Garrett, 15, is trapped in the “secret prison system for teenagers” when his controlling parents, enraged by his affair with a teacher, are lured by the promise of a boot-camp brochure: “The child who returns from the Lake Harmony experience is the child you always knew you had.” Once at the camp, Garrett endures a battery of brainwashing techniques, including physical abuse, and eventually meets two other desperate teens who want to escape. Some plot elements don’t add up; it’s hard to believe, for instance, that the one supportive adult Garrett encounters—a warden—would let the camp continue without blowing the whistle. But as in Strasser’s Give a Boy a Gun (2000), the real-world issues will hit a nerve.— Jennifer Mattson

My final suggestion was a book titled “A Question of Freedom: A Memoir of Learning, Survival, and Coming of Age in Prison (2010)” by R. Dwayne Betts. I usually avoid recommending non-fiction books to high school students especially those who struggle with literacy issues. Fiction takes licenses which can make it even more entertaining and accessible to readers who struggle with literacy. The middle school and high school age young people who I work with usually respond best to my fiction recommendations. However, I really enjoyed Dwayne Betts’ book. It is a story of redemption and does not come across as preachy or after-school special like. Here’s a short description:

At the age of sixteen, R. Dwayne Betts-a good student from a lower- middle-class family-carjacked a man with a friend. He had never held a gun before, but within a matter of minutes he had committed six felonies. In Virginia, carjacking is a “certifiable” offense, meaning that Betts would be treated as an adult under state law. A bright young kid, he served his nine-year sentence as part of the adult population in some of the worst prisons in the state.

A Question of Freedom chronicles Betts’s years in prison, reflecting back on his crime and looking ahead to how his experiences and the books he discovered while incarcerated would define him. Utterly alone, Betts confronts profound questions about violence, freedom, crime, race, and the justice system. Confined by cinder-block walls and barbed wire, he discovers the power of language through books, poetry, and his own pen. Above all, A Question of Freedom is about a quest for identity-one that guarantees Betts’s survival in a hostile environment and that incorporates an understanding of how his own past led to the moment of his crime.

I could have gone on but I felt that this list was a good beginning. All of the books that I mentioned above have male protagonists because I thought that the young man who I was recommending the books for would find these characters appealing and perhaps relatable.

Because I have spent over 15 years specifically working with young women in gender-specific programs, I am going to suggest a book titled “Upstate (2005)” by Kalisha Buckhanon. I ran a book group for young women of color in their teens a couple of years ago where we read “Upstate.” The young women LOVED this book. Here is review from Booklist:

With e-mail being used for everything from business memos and meeting reminders to tender love notes, the epistolary novel– with a history stretching from the days of Samuel Richardson and Choderlos de Laclos’ Liaisons Dangereuses to, more recently, Helene Hanff’s 84 Charing Cross Road and Alice Walker’s Color Purple– seems to be burgeoning again. Buckhanon’s foray in the format presents a decade of correspondence between Antonio, initially a teen arrested for murder, and his sweetheart, Natasha. Both from tiny, dark apartments in Harlem, they are passionately in love and lust but destined to walk very different roads. Eschewing Walker’s more dialectal language, Buckhanon opts for writing that is best called “lite,” suggesting New York City black speech but not so authentically as to compromise mainstream audience potential. Those aware of how unlikely success is for young women in Harlem and felons in and out of lockup might take issue with Buckhanon’s somewhat sanitized depiction. Others may eagerly anticipate a TV adaptation of it. — Whitney Scott

If you are an educator or youth worker, I have a terrific curriculum to teach “Upstate” to young women for those who might be interested. Please feel free to e-mail me and I can share it with you.

By the way, I would love to hear others’ suggestions of good YA books about incarceration. So feel free to let me know your ideas.

Happy reading!

Sep 25 2011

Poem for the Day: America Eats Its Young by Jemeni

America Eats Its Young

America’s still eating its young,
But I think she need to get slim.
Somebody tell that heifer to exorcise her demons,
Stop chewin on black children
& reduce her jail cell ulite.

Ain’t nobody want her breast-milk
So she’s backed up, chest swollen.
See justice for black folk
is notoriously lactose

Maybe she should get a tummy-tuck,
Cuz her underbelly’s showin.
And we see a disproportionate percentage of black boys
Locked up in the belly o’ dat beast,
She likes darkies,
Developed a taste for dark meat,
I mean she’s been suckin the blood from our marrow

Too bad most innocent cons
Don’t have the Canadi-ons
To clear up the lie —
Po’ suction causes a clog in the system
And a lot of black boys get lost in the system.
Inmates studying law to find a clause in the system/
I mean,
they know dey gon’ die,
But at least they could try to put some sorta
– Pause – in the system.

4 copes get acquitted.
And Giuliani got the nerve to give
For the system.

America’s still eating its young
And she’s got a mansize hunger
So she eats a snickers
Cuz snickers satisfies you!
Cuz eating these snickers satisfies you!
Eating these snickers satisfies you!

Eating these — niggers
satisfies you.

And she’ll do anything to sadist-fy her mansize
Sodomize some mother’s child,
then pick his broken manhood from
between her teeth

Maybe we should staple her mouth shut
41 times
Or sorry, just shoot the staple gun at her
41 times
And maybe 19 will sting.

It…it…it was self-defence!
See, we thought lady liberty was holding a torch.
Who knew till after it was just a home-fried chicken wing.
But you understand our dilemma,
I mean the whole world knows

America eats its young.

Sep 22 2011

A Little Break from Blogging…

Regular readers of this blog know that I have several “day” jobs. Over the past few days, I have been going at 110 miles an hour working at those “jobs,” supporting efforts to save Troy Davis’s life, and also trying to handle family issues. At this point, I need a break from blogging for a few days while I handle my business. I’ll be back railing against the injustice of the prison industrial complex here next week.

I leave you with one of my all-time favorite songs “Ella’s Song” by Sweet Honey in the Rock. Every time I start to feel weary, I listen to this song on a loop and it never fails to revive my spirits:

Sep 22 2011

Eulogy for Troy…

Words fail me… But I decided to try. May Troy Davis Rest in Peace.


Please try to remember that what they believe, as well as what they do and cause you to endure does not testify to your inferiority but to their inhumanity” – James Baldwin

I pulled up your picture last night.
I put my hand over your face.
I wanted to feel close to you.
I have called you Troy for years now.
We are not familiar.
I have written you letters.
I never expected a response.

I pulled up your picture last night.
I looked into your eyes.
I recognized you.
You have eyes like my brother.
And I am afraid.
I live with low-grade anxiety for the black boys in my life.
Nephews, Godsons, Someone’s Son…
America is hungry and insatiable.
It feeds on black blood.

I pulled up your picture last night.
Printed it out and put it under my pillow.
I wanted to make sure that I remembered.
I need to provide testimony.
I am called to confront injustice.

I had a dream…
My younger brother was falsely accused.
He was just a boy.
He survived their attempt to lock up another brother.
He was lucky? It was only an attempted soul-murder by the system.
I woke up and it was true.

I pulled out your photograph from under my pillow.
I tried to kiss it.
I wanted to breathe life back into your body.
I could not.
I decided to tell you a story instead.
One that is worthy of your legacy.
We were all so outraged by the injustice of your killing
That we joined hands and gave a mighty roar.
It was heard across the world.
We abolished the death penalty.

Sep 21 2011

A “Legal Lynching” in Georgia on the International Day of Peace

I spent a good part of last night re-reading speeches by Dr. Martin Luther King and Archbishop Desmond Tutu. I do that sometimes when I am trying to get my bearings. As the state of Georgia prepares to kill a man tonight on the International Day of Peace, it would seem that we all need to get our bearings.

I am against the death penalty so for some I am disqualified from giving an opinion about Troy Davis’s impending execution. And yet it has been written that: “A time comes when silence is betrayal.” I cannot be silent in the face of this great injustice. Even ardent supporters of capital punishment must be troubled by the fact that a man will be murdered by the state based on doubtful evidence. I deeply believe this to be true. Anyone who is concerned with the sanctity of life cannot turn away from this case, cannot turn away from the vagaries of execution. In an editorial, the New York Times called the Georgia Parole Board’s denial of clemency for Troy Davis a “tragic miscarriage of justice.”

I have heard and read many references to Troy Davis’s execution being tantamount to a “legal lynching.” I want to recoil from this characterization. I want to protest, “no, this is wrong.” Then I remember a few lines from Ansel Elkins’s searing poem Reverse: A Lynching:

Return the tree, the moon, the naked man
Hanging from the indifferent branch
Return blood to his brain, breath to his heart
Reunite the neck with the bridge of his body
Untie the knot, undo the noose
Return the kicking feet to ground
Unwhisper the word jesus
Rejoin his penis with his loins
Resheathe the knife
Regird the calfskin belt through trouser loops
Refasten the brass buckle
Untangle the spitting men from the mob
Unsay the word nigger
Release the firer’s finger from its trigger
Return the revolver to its quiet holster

“Release the firer’s finger from its trigger, Return the revolver to its quiet holster.” Read the entire poem and think of Troy Davis today. We all want to release the guard’s finger from the syringe that will administer the lethal injection. We so desperately want to “Reverse: An Execution.”

So while I want to reject the idea that Troy Davis is being “legally lynched”, I find that I cannot. I remember seeing images years ago from a searing book and online exhibition titled "Without Sanctuary." No matter how much I tried, years later I still could not erase the images of crowds of gleeful Americans watching black bodies hanging from poplar trees.

Then just recently I saw the same images of gleeful Americans cheering capital punishment. It was at a recent Presidential candidates debate. Brian Williams who was one of the debate moderators was so taken aback by the crowd reaction that he asked one of the candidates what he made of the cheering. Rick Perry responded: “I think Americans understand justice.” All I could think in that moment was: “Oh were that to be true!”

The reality is that it falls to the minority of us, to as Dr. King often said: “Save America’s Soul.” We need to remind everyone that without justice, there can be no peace. The death penalty is unjust and it cannot be reformed; it must be abolished.

In his Nobel Prize acceptance speech of 1964, Dr. King said: “I believe that wounded justice, lying prostrate on the blood-flowing streets of our nations, can be lifted from this dust of shame to reign supreme among the children of men.” I have to believe that this is possible. I have to believe that we can lift our wounded “justice” system; that we can create something better than our current oppressive system. On this International Day of Peace, I offer these words by Dr. King for Troy Davis and for all of us:

“For we must come to see that peace is not merely the absence of some negative force, it is the presence of a positive force. True peace is not merely the absence of tension, but it is the presence of justice and brotherhood.”

Over the past few years, so many of us have tried to be that positive force in advocating that the State spare Troy Davis’s life. We do and will continue to strive for “the presence of justice and brotherhood” (I would add sisterhood too) all across the world.

I will end with Troy Davis’s eloquent words from a letter that he wrote to his supporters last week:

So Thank you and remember I am in a place where execution can only destroy your physical form but because of my faith in God, my family and all of you I have been spiritually free for some time and no matter what happens in the days, weeks to come, this Movement to end the death penalty, to seek true justice, to expose a system that fails to protect the innocent must be accelerated. There are so many more Troy Davis’. This fight to end the death penalty is not won or lost through me but through our strength to move forward and save every innocent person in captivity around the globe. We need to dismantle this Unjust system city by city, state by state and country by country.

I can’t wait to Stand with you, no matter if that is in physical or spiritual form, I will one day be announcing,


Never Stop Fighting for Justice and We will Win!

What else is there to say? Nothing except perhaps this…

Sep 20 2011

The State of Georgia is Intent on Killing Troy Davis…

I have to admit that I woke up this morning not feeling particularly confident that the Georgia Board of Parole and Pardon would give clemency to Troy Davis. I was hopeful but not confident. Then came the news that the Board has indeed denied clemency to Troy.

Blogger Emily Hauser wrote this in response to hearing the decision:

I’m beside myself, so full of shame of my country and my countrymen. That people engaged in the administration of justice, entrusted with upholding our laws and protecting our lives, could allow the death sentence to go forward in a case that is so thoroughly riddled with doubt is beyond me.

I feel such ache and horror for Mr. Davis’s family, and find I am suddenly glad that his mother died last spring, of a broken heart her daughters believe, because at least she won’t actually see her boy killed. I thought of this as I sent my boy to school today: Troy Davis was once a boy, on his way to school. And tomorrow, at 7:00 pm EST, he, too, will be a murder victim — only the murderers will be the people meant to protect him.

I am ashamed, ashamed, ashamed. What is wrong with this country? What is wrong with us?

Emily asks “What is wrong with us?” That is indeed the right question. James Baldwin wrote to his nephew: “…you will discover, people find it very difficult to act on what they know. To act is to be committed, and to be committed is to be in danger.” These words ring with so much truth. At every level of the Troy Davis case, people should have acted on what they know. They should act on the evidence that doesn’t support Troy’s guilt. But that would mean that they would have to be committed and therefore in danger. In this case, the danger in the minds of the Board must be their fear of being seen as “soft on crime.” Perhaps there is some other danger lurking for them that I can’t identify.

So we are left with two options: resignation or continued struggle. I always choose struggle over resignation. Troy Davis has reportedly rejected a “last meal.” As I see it, this is a sign that he hasn’t given up the fight. We shouldn’t either. Once again, James Baldwin provides us with the reason not to give up:

“If we know, then we must fight for your life as though it were our own – which it is – and render impassable with our bodies the corridor to the gas chamber. For, if they take you in the morning, they will be coming for us that night.”

My liberation is bound with yours. Troy’s liberation is bound with all of ours. So please move quickly from despair to action. You can still do something to help save Troy Davis’s life:

Please call or fax the Chatham County’s District Attorney’s office – phone: 912-652-7308 / fax: 912-652-7328 and demand that Chatham County (Savannah) District Attorney Larry Chisolm “seek a withdrawal of the death warrant and support clemency himself.”

Let’s also heed the words of JasiriX about this case:

Sep 19 2011

Everyone Should Visit A Juvenile Jail or Prison…

When I was much younger, I railed about prisons. I had never visited an actual jail or prison but I read a lot about the experience of incarceration. I thought that this made me an expert. I was afflicted by one of the maladies of youth – self-confidence based on little or no actual lived experience.

The first time I set foot in a jail was to visit a young man who had been one of my students. He was locked up for murder. He was at Rikers Island awaiting trial. He spent 11 months in jail before his trial began. He was eventually sentenced to 25 years to life. He was 17 years old. I was not prepared for my visit. I wasn’t prepared for the invasiveness of being searched, I was not prepared for the smells, I was not prepared for the attitudes of the guards who looked at me like I was dirt. I wasn’t prepared for any of it.

Later when I began to do some work inside jails and prisons with young people, I would actually see their cells. I would see the inside of a jail or prison. I still wasn’t prepared. It’s been many years since I first walked into a jail. Every time I go inside, I am still not prepared for the emotions that assault me.

So I say to everyone, you should visit a juvenile jail or prison. You should visit adult jail and prison too.

In the meatime, this month’s issue of Harper’s Magazine (PDF) features an arresting photo essay about juvenile detention across the U.S. by Richard Ross.

From Juvenile Injustice: A Photo Essay:

For the past five years, Richard Ross has interviewed and photographed more than 1,000 juvenile detainees, some as young as eight years old, in more than 350 detention facilities in thirty states. Of the series, Ross states: “In a country that incarcerates one out of every one hundred adults, the juveniles have the least voice and are the smallest victims of a system under stress.”

Below are a couple of photos from the essay:

by Richard Ross

By Richard Ross

Go visit a young person who is locked up. Let them know that they are not alone and that they remain part of the world.

Sep 18 2011

This is Prison… Wise Words From A Prisoner

One of my pen pals, Randy Miller, who is locked up at Indiana State Prison just wrote me a letter and enclosed an essay that he titled: “This is Prison.” In his letter to me, he explained why he wrote the essay:

This last week, for some reason I kept finding prison movies on television. After briefly watching those movies I got rather upset at the way they portrayed prison as humorous or a right of passage for some. I couldn’t help but feel like this contributes to the lack of fear some kids have about coming here and increases their risk of coming to prison.

Here’s an excerpt of what he wrote in “This is Prison:”

Life in prison starts in a room with 15 to 20 other men, where you are simultaneously stripped of all your personal belongings and searched. Guards look in our ears, mouth, through your hair, under your feet and between your toes. They tell you to lift your penis, then your sack and have you bend over and spread your cheeks and cough, to ensure you’re not hiding a weapon, drugs, or other contraband up your ass. You then shower with a special soap to stop the spread of lice and other critters, and then you get dressed in state clothing that is intentionally given to you a size too small to prevent sagging. You are then shackled and cuffed, one hand palm facing your head, the other palm facing your feet, with a box around the cuffs to keep you in this uncomfortable position (top hand palm up, bottom hand palm down), loaded on a bus and driven to whatever prison they decide to put you in. For me, this was a four-hour ride and I had cuff marks and bruises on my wrists for two days.

Once you get to your new home, you are stripped and searched again. You are issued your clothing, which consists of 3 shirts, 3 pants, 5 undershirts and 5 pairs of socks and boxers. Laundry is done once a week, if you’re lucky, so you have to find a way to stay clean. You are given one 2 by 2 inch square bar of soap, a three inch toothbrush (it’s travel sized), and two single blade razors, to last a MONTH! Once they run out, nobody cares. You’d better have people to send money to you. They give you two sheets, a blanket and a mat about two inches thick and take you to your cell.

There is not a more isolated, intimidating, lonely place on earth than a prison cell. The cell house is five tiers high, 50 cells per tier, with two sides, for a total of 500 prisoners. There are three guards per cell house. Three guards to control 500 men. I have gone hours without ever having seen or heard a guard anywhere near my cell. Each tier is 5 feet wide with a fence from top to bottom to prevent guys from being thrown off. It is impossible for guards to see down those tiers during chow times or recreation time. You are on your own with a cell house full of predators and prey.

The first thing you learn in the cell house are the sounds and screams. You learn to hear guards and shakedown crews coming in the building. You hear sneakers screeching on the floor and the thud of fists hitting face, as fights happen several times a day. You learn to tell the difference between screams. The screams of someone who has been stabbed or had boiling oil or water thrown on them. The haunting screams of a man being gang raped in the shower or trapped in a cell, begging for help and knowing there’s no help coming. Then there’s the yells and screams of the guards, as the discover men who have been stabbed, raped, or beaten and left in a pool of their own blood.

He wrote so much more in his essay. He shared stories of violence and torture and most importantly he wrote directly to some of the young men that I work with imploring them to stay out of prison. Here are some of his concluding words addressed directly to those young men:

You are all young enough, smart enough, and have the opportunity to correct any mistakes you’ve made, or take the steps necessary to prevent mistakes in the future. Whatever your situation is out there, trust me, it is better than any situation you will find yourself in here. I have an out date as of right now, but I would gladly spend the rest of my life in prison, if it meant just one of you would never have to see the inside of a cell. I mean that, but if you choose to ignore my warnings, if you choose to take the easy road and not take advantage of the opportunities you have, then I will see you soon, because this is prison, and there’s always an open cell.

I will share Randy’s words with the young men we work with. I will share his words as a way to open up communication between those on the inside and those on the outside. I will share his words as a warning. I will share his words as a gift.