Question: What message would you say this infographic is trying to convey?
A. We should provide more resources to support Michigan students’ education while still treating prisoners humanely.
B. We should divert resources from prisoners in Michigan because they are living in luxury while our children suffer.
C. We should decarcerate Michigan so that we can devote adequate resources to Michigan students.
Regular readers know that I have written about the intersection between immigrant detention and the prison industrial complex intermittently on this blog. You can find some of the posts here, here, and here.
Just recently I’ve become aware of the fact that U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) is attempting to build a huge, private immigrant detention center in a small town called Crete, Illinois, just south of Cook County. A coalition of individuals and organizations are mobilizing to create an action plan to stop this center from being built. As I get more information on that campaign, I will of course share it here.
In the meantime, I have come across a few resources that I would like to share about how criminalizing immigrants is big business. First, I suggest that everyone check out the Immigrants for Sale site. They are doing great work raising public awareness about these issues. Below is one of their latest videos about how private prisons are profiting off the detention of immigrants.
Another resource that I discovered over the past six months is a series of audio stories by the Common Language Project about the history of immigration detention and also about how immigrants are being treated in detention in the state of Washington today. They are excellent and informative. I highly recommend listening.
The excellent PBS show called “NOW” did a terrific expose about the nexus between immigrant detention and private prisons in 2008. You can watch that report here.
Finally, I am privileged to own two limited editions of a zine titled Detained by artist Eroyn Franklin. The zine follows the story of two immigrants as they navigate the detention process. The publication is educational and moving. I don’t know if there are still copies available but you can see various photographs of the images which were displayed as part of an exhibit earlier this year.
We seem enured to the brutality that many prisoners are subjected to behind bars. We should not be. Cases like this one should be an affront to our sense of decency and should jar us out of our complacency:
Late on the night of August 4, 2010, a badly beaten young man arrived at the trauma ward of Jackson Hospital here. Although the patient was hardly a flight risk, security was tight and prison guards crowded into the emergency room as doctors began treatment.
The patient’s limp body spoke to the savagery of an assault that had left deep contusions on his legs and torso, and inflamed knots bulging from his head and face. He was unresponsive, with fixed and dilated pupils, and doctors quickly diagnosed a traumatic brain injury. Only a ventilator kept him alive. He never regained consciousness and died the next day.
His name was Rocrast Mack. An Alabama prison inmate, his death at age 24 came at the hands of six corrections officers, who took turns battering him with their fists, feet and batons in retribution for a minor altercation with a female guard earlier that night, according to witness accounts and prison records.
“To be an inmate in the Los Angeles County jails is to fear deputy attacks. In the past year, deputies have assaulted scores of non-resisting inmates, according to reports from jail chaplains, civilians, and inmates. Deputies have attacked inmates for complaining about property missing from their cells.
They have beaten inmates for asking for medical treatment, for the nature of their alleged offenses, and for the color of their skin.
They have beaten inmates in wheelchairs. They have beaten an inmate, paraded him naked down a jail module, and placed him in a cell to be sexually assaulted.
Many attacks are unprovoked. Nearly all go unpunished: these acts of violence are covered up by a department that refuses to acknowledge the pervasiveness of deputy violence in the jail system.”
I am not naive but I was honestly stunned at the brazenness of the systematic violence and abuse that inmates in LA County were subjected to by staff. The following video features a former inmate detailing the abuse and brutality that he suffered.
The former inmate made the following statement in the video: “This is just a concrete concentration camp.” The concept of prison as a “concentration camp” is actually not new. In the 1960s and 70s, many prisoners made similar claims.
Were the guards who took part in these acts of brutality in Alabama or in L.A. sadists before they started working in jails and prisons? This is doubtful. Instead a more plausible explanation of such violence could be that working in these environments has a profoundly negative and perhaps even dehumanizing impact on people.
I think that the examples of brutality cited above push us to consider the impact that being a jailer has on the people who fulfill this role. During the recent campaign to save Troy Davis’s life, a group of former Wardens wrote a letter asking for a stay of execution. This should not have been remarkable but it was. A couple of sections of the letter particularly stood out to me:
“We write to you today with the overwhelming concern that an innocent person could be executed in Georgia tonight. We know the legal process has exhausted itself in the case of Troy Anthony Davis, and yet, doubt about his guilt remains. This very fact will have an irreversible and damaging impact on your staff. Many people of significant standing share these concerns, including, notably, William Sessions, Director of the FBI under President Ronald Reagan.
Living with the nightmares is something that we know from experience. No one has the right to ask a public servant to take on a lifelong sentence of nagging doubt, and for some of us, shame and guilt. Should our justice system be causing so much harm to so many people when there is an alternative?”
The Wardens were in part making the case that killing a potentially innocent man would have lasting effects on the executioners themselves. One of the Wardens, a man named Allen Ault, spoke eloquently about these concerns on several television programs in the run up to Troy’s ultimate state-sanctioned murder:
In his book New Jack: Guarding Sing Sing, Ted Conover describes his year-long experience as a prison guard. It is a complex portrayal of the role of correctional officers in a prison. We read as Conover, a journalist, is indoctrinated into the ways of prison life. He paints a picture of prisoners who are sometimes scary, unlikeable and dangerous but always human. At one point in the book, he muses about beating up prisoners and setting their cellhouse on fire. He describes the frustrations and sometimes the brutality of his fellow guards who have come to see their charges as something less than human over time. What I found most important in the book though was his reporting about the toll that being a jailer took on the lives of the guards. They had high rates of divorce, health issues, anger, and depression. I think that the book is an essential read for anyone who is interested in how the PIC impacts more than just those who are held captive. It also leaves an indelible mark on the jailers and their families too.
In her brilliant song “Mr. Jailer,” Asa seeks to underscore the interdependence of and the human connection between the jailer and the jailed:
Am in chains you’re in chains too I wear uniforms
You wear uniforms too Am a prisoner
You’re a prisoner too Mr Jailer
I have fears you have fear too I will die
You self go die too Life is beautiful don’t you think so too Mr Jailer
Am talking to you jailer
Stop calling me a prisoner
Let he who is without sin
Be the first to cast the stone Mr Jailer
You suppress all my strategy
You oppress every part of me
What you don’t know
You’re a victim too Mr Jailer
The same theme about the interconnectedness of the jailer and jailed and the sense that their destinies are inextricably linked is struck by Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish in his exquisite poem “The Prison Cell.” I have taught this poem to youth and it always gets them talking about how we can all be “imprisoned” even without setting foot in a cell. Always, those of us on the “outside” are intimately connected to those we lock in cages. Not to understand this is to live in denial or to live in South Korea which is apparently experimenting with robot prison guards.
A few days ago Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote the following in a post titled “The Cops We Deserve:”
“Not to diminish what happened at UC Davis, but it’s worth considering what happens in poor neighborhoods and prisons, far from the cameras. I’m not saying that to diminish this video in any way. But I’d like people to see this a[s] part of a broad systemic attitude we’ve adopted as a country toward law enforcement. There’s a direct line from this officer invoking his privilege to brutalize these students, and an officer invoking his privilege to detain Henry Louis Gates for sassing him.”
I thought that this was a characteristically respectful and non-alienating way to remind folks that for marginalized people, police violence is not a new phenomenon. Over the past few weeks as incidents of violent police responses to the Occupy Movement have become more visible, I have heard some friends (all people of color) sarcastically suggest that some white, relatively privileged folks are now discovering police brutality for the first time. Kind of in the way that Columbus “discovered” Native Americans; They had always been here.
Regular readers of this blog know that I write very often about policing and state violence. I believe that it is impossible to understand the Prison Industrial Complex without probing the role of policing. Over a year ago, I wrote a post titled “Officer Friendly Doesn't Live Here: Policing Urban Youth.” The main point I made was that:
“One of the most consistent themes that I hear from the young people who I work with is that they feel under siege by the police in their neighborhoods. They are consistently harassed and hassled for no reason other than their youth and skin color.”
So for many black people, the current response to the police violence associated with the Occupy Movement runs the gamut from indifference to eye-rolling and in some instances exasperation and anger. This past week, I came across a post written by Black Canseco titled “Open Letter to #OWS: 'Oh, so NOW Police Brutality matters?!'” which encapsulates the exasperated and angry response. The letter opens this way:
Dear Occupy Wall Street:
Police brutality in America did not begin with you. It’s older than you, older than your encampments and older than your sudden awareness of it.
As one of the 99% you claim to champion, I for example, have seen police brutality firsthand throughout my childhood and my adult life right on to this day. As an African American male I have seen what happens when you occupy black skin in the presence of a police officer. I’ve buried friends who were shot by police despite having broken no laws. I’ve seen police batons and fists, backs of squad cars and squad carhoods used as weapons—not because I or my fellow African Americans were protesting or making any public statements, but simply because we were breathing and existing outside our homes.
It’s hard to know what to say to this, isn’t it? It feels like a conversation ender. Right away those who are reading his open letter and sympathize with OWS might feel put on the defensive. Yet it is impossible not to feel the pain that permeates the entire letter in this opening paragraph. This cannot and should not be minimized. We should not look away because of the anger expressed.
I have analogized police violence to domestic terrorism . I think that this concept applies perfectly. Police violence takes a physical, emotional, and spiritual toll on its targets. The routine “Stop and Frisk” policies that mostly target young black men in our cities lead to urban trauma that is neglected and underappreciated. So I take these things very seriously.
However for me, the appropriate response is not to berate some white people for only just now recognizing the endemic violence and brutality of policing in America but rather to enlist them as allies in transforming this system. This means that we have to engage these folks in popular education about the issue of policing and violence so that they can become steeped in a structural analysis of the problem.
Katheryn K. Russell (2000) cautions us against “the dismissal of police violence as a Black thing.” I think that this is basically right. Rather than locating the problem of police brutality as strictly in the purview of black men, we must underscore how aggressive police tactics harm all of us. The truth is that while Black men suffer disproportionately at the hands of police, young women of color, trans folks, and others are also routinely harassed by law enforcement. Only by making visible all of the forms of violent policing will we be able to build a movement for transformative justice. If it remains an issue that people view as only impacting black people in particular, then our possibility for social change is going to be very limited.
We have historical precedent for this. In much the same way that I believe that white people should talk to white people about race and racism; I also believe that if white people talked to other white people about police violence, we would be further along in helping to end it. One example of this can be found in a powerful letter titled “Feeling for the Edge of Your Imagination: finding ways not to call the police” that I have previously cited. I incorporated some parts of this letter in a post that I wrote titled “Yes, In Fact, the Cops Are in My Head.” The author specifically addresses the letter to other privileged people with whom she identifies:
“All of you, but especially those of you who, like myself and the two people mentioned above, are white and/or grew up middle class and/or didn’t grow up in NYC. I’m writing to you, also, if you’ve smiled your way out of a speeding ticket, if you’ve been most afraid of cops at mass protests, or if you generally feel safer when you see police around. If these things are true for you, it’s possible that you are more distanced from the real impact of policing on low-income communities of color. But whether people in your life experience those impacts regularly or not, whether you’ve spent a night in jail, done work to support political prisoners, or haven’t thought much about police brutality since Sean Bell… if you hold a commitment to making the world a better place, I’m writing to you, because there’s work to be done.”
I imagine that the author of this letter might be a supporter of the Occupy Movement (but maybe not). Frankly if we are to win, we need more white people who want to join in the movement to dismantle the PIC and who want to work for alternatives to policing. So while I have empathy for Black Canseco’s exasperation and anger, I also want to find constructive ways to engage those who are just learning about police violence through the experience in the Occupy Movement. We need to figure out better ways to talk across our differences without alienating each other. It’s going to take a movement of millions to transform justice.
I came across an article this week about a juvenile detention facility in Kane County, IL which was recently reprimanded for forbidding youth from wearing clothing in their cells:
The Illinois Department of Juvenile Justice conducted an inspection of the Kane County Juvenile Detention Center Oct. 3. Inspectors found juvenile detainees were forced to remove all their clothes except undergarments whenever they were returned to their rooms.
Detention and Audit Services Administrator Robert C. Catchings said stripping the juveniles of their clothes “tests the boundaries of corporal punishment” in a letter accompanying the report. “The Illinois Department of Juvenile Justice does not endorse this practice, and subsequently, recommend that this practice cease immediately.”
Just think of the indignity that these young people experienced in having to remove their clothing every time they entered their cells. Why did administrators institute this policy? The answer is below:
Rick Anselme, superintendent of Kane’s facility, said juveniles have been allowed to wear their full detention center uniforms while in their rooms since Nov. 7. He said having the youths wear only undergarments in their rooms was created to keep them from using their clothes to harm themselves.
At the time the policy was created, Anselme said, there had been instances of juveniles either threatening to commit suicide or actually harming themselves in their rooms.
Once again, here is an example of the prison industrial complex focusing on disappearing the problems that lead to incarceration. Instead of seeking to address the obvious mental health issues that would lead a young person to attempt suicide, the system creates a one-size fits-all policy which further punishes young people. Absolutely mindless…
To learn more about Rashid Johnson who is an artist and prisoner, click here. In addition, I want to share an activity created by the Chicago PIC Collective about Prison Solidarity which can be used to underscore the resistance against the PIC that is taking place across the country. Use this with a group as part of an icebreaker, class or workshop.
“He that conceals his grief finds no remedy for it.” – Turkish Proverb
I want to take this opportunity to express my deepest and most sincere appreciation to my friends and to the strangers who reached out to me after I posted the news of my neighbor’s son’s suicide. I am so grateful for the kind words of condolence, of encouragement, and of love. Thank you.
I stopped by to offer my condolences to my neighbor and her family this afternoon. I cooked for a large group this Thanksgiving and decided to drop off some food.
I walked through the door and if sadness were visible, then I would have been blinded by it. The heartbreak was palpable; it wrapped itself around my gut and squeezed the breath out of me.
My neighbor hugged me and whispered that she was grateful I had come. Then she looked at me and asked:”Do you think that I killed X by sending him away?” I stared at her dumbstruck. What does one say to such a terrible, horrifying question? Actually it is not the question that is terrible but rather the feelings that it belies — feelings of despair, guilt and grief.
When I could finally speak, I whispered “no, no, I do not.” She tells me that he was buried last Friday in South Carolina. She says that she wanted him buried next to his grandfather (who he idolized as a boy). I can’t take the rawness of emotion in the room so I stay for half an hour and then leave. I could not get out of there fast enough. I walk across the street, unlock my door, and crumble to the floor. The words “I HATE MYSELF and MY SKIN” rattle in my head. I haven’t been able to shake the words. I don’t think that I ever will. I pick myself up and resolve to not let grief overwhelm.
I am searching for the meaning in this. As I struggle to recover from blurred vision, I am being challenged to find new ways to “see” the world. There must be some meaning in this. Today on Thanksgiving, when so many people are spending time with friends and family, it is worth taking a moment to tell everyone how much you value them and appreciate that they are in this world. We have to hold tighter to those we love and we need to make more efforts to connect with those who we do not.
My friend Leanne who is a remarkable person sent me a poem a couple of days ago. She included a poignant note with it that I will cherish forever. One sentence from the note reads: “I am sending you this poem because I see it as a prayer for human redemption and for the possibility of renewal in the midst of abiding grief.”
I have read it a dozen times already and it does indeed feel like a prayer. It feels like a way to cut through the pain.
Let there be new flowering
by Lucille Clifton
let there be new flowering
in the fields let the fields
turn mellow for the men
let the men keep tender
through the time let the time
be wrested from the war
let the war be won
let love be
at the end
I am grateful for my loved ones, for those strangers who contribute light to the world, and for the blessing of being able to lead a purposeful life. Happy Thanksgiving to you all!
One of the main tenets of African philosophy is the concept of “Ubuntu.” Ubuntu is really the core of what it means to be a human being. It is about being selfless and thinking about others. It is about being a compassionate person and being “connected” to others. It is about understanding that if you hurt others, you really hurt yourself.
One of my touchstones is Archbishop Desmond Tutu. I have so much respect for all that he has done and for who he is. Tutu has defined the concept of Ubuntu as the understanding that “a person is a person through other people.” He adds that Ubuntu can best be understood as “me we.” I love that term — “me we.” He has written that the “solitary, isolated human being is a contradiction in terms.” All humanity is interconnected.
This is what is so destructive about prisons. They are about isolating and incapacitating human beings. They are about deliberately severing the “me we” or Ubuntu.
Tutu writes that “those who work to destroy and dehumanize are also victims — victims, usually, of a pervading ethos, be it a political ideology, an economic system, or a distorted religious conviction. Consequently, they are as much dehumanized as those on whom they trample.”
Ubuntu forces us to consider that as we dehumanize others we are actually dehumanizing ourselves in the process. What has happened to our humanity as we imprison masses of people? What has happened to our Ubuntu? Tutu recounts the story of South African minister of police Jimmy Krueger who on hearing of the torture and killing of activist and freedom fighter Steve Biko in prison is reported to have said that his death “leaves me cold.” Tutu writes of this: “You have to ask what has happened to the humanity – the ubuntu — of someone who could speak so callously about the suffering and death of a fellow human being.”
Malusi Mpumlwana was an associate of Biko who as he himself was being tortured by the police looked at his torturers and realized that these were human beings too and that they needed him “to help them recover the humanity they [were] losing.”
Tutu has written that “the only way we can ever be human is together. The only way we can be free is together.”
On the eve of another Thanksgiving, I am grateful that the universe has not diminished my own sense of Ubuntu. I wish the same for you. I will leave you with some final words by Archbishop Tutu and wish you all a very happy Thanksgiving. Prison Culture will be back on Monday.
When we look squarely at injustice and get involved, we actually feel less pain, not more, because we overcome the gnawing guilt and despair that festers under our numbness. We clean the wound — our own and others’ — and it can finally heal. — Desmond Tutu
I am finding it difficult to shake myself out of this funk. When I get like this (and it is rare), I usually take comfort in losing myself in other people’s words. I hold on to poetry like it is a life raft. I seek solace in other people’s words. When one reads Carolyn Rodgers for example, it is impossible not to believe in the healing power of art:
i am lonely
all the people i know
i know too well
I spent a sleepless night yesterday. This isn’t out of the ordinary for me. But I could not stop thinking about black men – those in my life and the others who are strangers to me.
I started writing in my journal and found that the well is dry. I couldn’t muster any eloquent or poignant or loving words. Perhaps that should not be a surprise. As I gave up on the idea of writing, I picked up my copy of Audre Lorde’s “The Black Unicorn” off my shelf. It is one of my favorite collection of poems. I return to it regularly. Early this morning, I had the urge to read it again. As I flipped through the book, I came upon “Eulogy for Alvin Frost.”
There it was — these were the words that I had been searching for. Audre had captured my emotions perfectly. I decided to borrow her tongue. I am going to do something blasphemous and quote excerpts from the poem. If you have the inclination though, I strongly recommend that you read the entire poem. It is exquisite.
“Eulogy for Alvin Frost” opens with these words:
Black men bleeding to death inside themselves
inside their fine strong bodies
inside their stomachs
inside their heads
as large as a dum-dum bullet
eaten away from the inside
death at 37.
I don’t want to write a natural poem
I want to write about the unnatural death
of a young man at 37
eating himself for courage in secret
until he vanished
bleeding to death inside.
I am tired of writing memorials to black men
whom I was on the brink of knowing
weary like fig trees
weighted like a crepe myrtle
with all the black substance poured into earth
before earth is ready to bear.
I am tired of holy deaths
of the ulcerous illuminations the cerebral accidents
the psychology of the oppressed
where mental health is the ability
knowledge of the world’s cruelty.
The poem ends with words of comfort for Alvin Frost’s surviving son:
Dear Danny who does not know me
writing to you for your father
whom I barely knew
except at meetings where he was
by his genuine laughter
and his bright words
Danny son of Alvin
whenever it hurts
remember to laugh
even when you do battle
stay away from coffee and fried plastic
even when it looks like chicken
and grow up
Black and strong and beautiful
but not too soon.
We need you
and there are so few
As I think about an appropriate tribute for my neighbor’s son, I dedicate these words to him and to all of the black men in my life.
In this short Life
That only lasts an hour
How much – how little — is
Within our power
- Emily Dickinson
I am sometimes called to police stations to help young people in conflict with the law. Back in August, my neighbor’s son was arrested and I received a panicked call from her. They live in a building across the street from mine. By the time I got to the police station, he was being released. Apparently he was part of a neighborhood sweep and was arrested with several of his friends by our local police. He insisted that he had done nothing wrong. I believed him especially since he was so quickly released from custody.
I received some devastating news this morning. The young man shot himself two weeks ago in South Carolina. He is dead and he left no note. His sister called to tell me the news. The entire family is crushed.
Apparently, the young man had been sent to live with his uncle in South Carolina in order to provide him with a less stressful environment. His mother had been rocked by her eldest son’s arrest. She worried deeply that he might meet a tragic end if he continued to walk the streets of Chicago. A young black man in this city is always at risk. My neighbor who is a single mother of three thought that her brother could provide her first born with the support and mentorship that she felt she no longer could when he turned 17 last March. After the August incident, she shipped him off to South Carolina for his senior year of high school.
Now he is gone… Too soon… Today I am haunted by some words that he shared with me when I ran into him a week after his arrest. I asked him how he was doing. He answered in the way that 17 year old young men sometimes do, with a monosyllabic response: “OK,” he said. I told him that we would need to get his arrest expunged from his juvenile record. Then he said: “It doesn’t matter, nothing good is going to happen for me anyway.” I was on my way to a meeting (which I was running late for) and I casually answered: “Don’t say that. Of course good things are in store for you.” I told him that I had to run and that I would see him soon. I am ashamed to say that I didn’t think about our conversation again until this morning after I heard the news of his suicide.
As I write this, I am having trouble seeing the computer screen through my tears. I didn’t follow up to see how he was doing. I didn’t know that he had been in South Carolina since early September. I didn’t recognize the depth of his pain. I simply didn’t see it.
His sister told me that a friend of his has said the young man was depressed and saw no future for himself. He didn’t have the grades to get a scholarship for college. Apparently, his friend told the family that he received an e-mail from the young man a couple of weeks before he shot himself. In it, he wrote in capital letters: “I HATE MYSELF AND MY SKIN.”
The tears won’t stop. I have no more words. I don’t want to write anymore so I will let James Baldwin, my favorite writer, speak for me. In 1970, he wrote his eloquent Open Letter to Angela Davis. I basically have the letter memorized because I find it so relevant and timely for our current historical moment in the U.S. I will quote two particular passages that are, to my mind, relevant to the tragedy of my neighbor’s son’s untimely passing. May his soul find the peace that he couldn’t find in our world.
“The American triumph—in which the American tragedy has always been implicit—was to make Black people despise themselves. When I was little I despised myself; I did not know any better. And this meant, albeit unconsciously, or against my will, or in great pain, that I also despised my father. And my mother. And my brothers. And my sisters. Black people were killing each other every Saturday night out on Lenox Avenue, when I was growing up; and no one explained to them, or to me, that it was intended that they should; that they were penned where they were, like animals, in order that they should consider themselves no better than animals. Everything supported this sense of reality, nothing denied it: and so one was ready, when it came time to go to work, to be treated as a slave. So one was ready, when human terrors came, to bow before a white God and beg Jesus for salvation—this same white God who was unable to raise a finger to do so little as to help you pay your rent, unable to be awakened in time to help you save your child!
We know that we, the Blacks, and not only we, the blacks, have been, and are, the victims of a system whose only fuel is greed, whose only god is profit. We know that the fruits of this system have been ignorance, despair, and death, and we know that the system is doomed because the world can no longer afford it—if, indeed, it ever could have. And we know that, for the perpetuation of this system, we have all been mercilessly brutalized, and have been told nothing but lies, lies about ourselves and our kinsmen and our past, and about love, life, and death, so that both soul and body have been bound in hell.”
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