Jan 31 2012

“Jumping Through Hoops:” Barriers to Erasing Criminal Records…

I am currently working with a coalition of other groups in Illinois to pass a bill to reform the juvenile expungement process. Juvenile expungement is intended to provide people with juvenile criminal records with a chance to erase them. This is intended to make it more likely that they can qualify for financial aid, that they can apply and be hired for jobs, and that they can qualify for certain professional licenses (like nursing).

As part of our process to pass the bill, we have been meeting with various stakeholders including legislators and law enforcement representatives. For the most part, folks have been supportive of our common-sense reform measures. Our biggest opponent however is the Cook County State’s Attorney’s office which refuses to adopt any sort of reasonable posture in negotiating with our coalition.

After our latest meeting with a group of stakeholders representing the legal system this morning, I am reflecting on the fact that many people are just downright hostile against young people. The assumption seems to be that if they aren’t getting their records expunged; it’s their fault. In the world that some of these people inhabit, fees are not an obstacle to expungement “because they can afford to pay.” Additionally, the system should remain as onerous as possible because they want youth to “jump through hoops” in order to clear their records. When it is pointed out that thousands of young people are arrested each year and their cases aren’t referred to court. The response remains the same. We don’t care if these are mere arrests (some of which are surely false arrests), we just want to make them “take responsibility” for their actions.

Given the reality that almost 30% of youth in the U.S. will be arrested by the age of 23, I can’t help but think that we will be reaching a tipping point soon. When the main people who were being adversely impacted by arrest records were youth of color, there was no urgency to reform the expungement process. However now that many more young white people find themselves caught in the net of increasing police control, I wonder how much more amenable the powers that be will be to expungement reform in the future.

It’s a sad but true fact that only when they see these as “their” kids too will they find a willingness to make the system more fair, just, and cost-effective. You can learn more about our efforts by visiting the UN-MARKED CAMPAIGN BLOG.

Jan 30 2012

Eldridge Cleaver’s Rationale for Prison Abolition…

From “An Address on Prisons” in Ramparts Magazine (1968):

“When you focus on the adult penitentiaries, you’re looking at the end of the line, trying to see where a process begins. But if you really want to understand and see what’s behind the prison system, you have to look at Juvenile Hall. You have to do down to Juvenile Hall. That’s where I started my career, at about the age of twelve, for some charge. I don’t know what it was, vandalism. I think I ripped off a bicycle, maybe two or three bicycles. Maybe I had a bicycle business. I don’t remember. But it related to bicycles. They took me to Juvenile Hall, and it took me about six months to get out again. While I was there I met a lot of people. I met a lot of real, nice, groovy cats who were very active, very healthy people, who had stolen bicycles and things like that. Then I moved up the ladder from Juvenile Hall to Whittier Reform School for youngsters. I graduated from that one and they jumped me up to the big leagues, to the adult penitentiary system.

I noticed that every time I went back to jail, the same guys who were in Juvenile Hall with me were also there again. They arrived there soon after I got there, or a little before I left. They always seemed to make the scene. In the California prison system, they carry you from Juvenile Hall to the old folks’ colony, down in San Luis Obispo, and wait for you to die. Then they bury you there, if you don’t have anyone outside to claim your body, and most people down there don’t. I noticed these waves, these generations. I had a chance to watch other generations that came behind me, and I talked with them. I’d ask them if they’d been in jail before. You will find graduating classes moving up from Juvenile Hall, all the way up. It occurred to me that this was a social failure, one that cannot be justified by any stretch of the imagination. Not by any stretch of the imagination can the children in the Juvenile Halls be condemned, because they’re innocent, and they’re processed by an environment that they have no control over.

If you look at the adult prisons, you can’t make head or tail out of them. By the time these men get there, they’re in for murder, rape, robbery and all the high crimes. But when you look into their pasts, you find Juvenile Hall. You have to ask yourself, why is there not in this country a program for young people that will interest them? That will actively involve them and will process them to be healthy individuals and lead a healthy life. Until someone answers that question for me, the only attitude I can have towards the prison system, including Juvenile Hall, is tear those walls down and let those people out of there. That’s the only question. How do we tear those walls down and let those people out of there?

People look at the point in the Black Panther Party program that calls for freedom for all black men and women held in federal, state, county, and municipal jails. They find it hard to accept that particular point. They can relate to running the police out of the community, but they say, “Those people in those prisons committed crimes. They’re convicted of crimes. How can you even talk about bringing them out? If you did get them out, would you, in the black community, take them and put them on trial and send them back again?” I don’t know how to deal with that. It’s just no. NO! Let them out and leave them alone! Let them out because they’re hip to all of us out here now. Let them out. Turn them over to the Black Panther Party. Give them to us. We will redeem them from the promises made by the Statue of Liberty that were never fulfilled. We have a program for them that will keep them active — 24 hours a day. And I don’t mean eight big strong men in a big conspicuous truck robbing a jive gas station for $75. When I sit down to conspire to commit a robbery, it’s going to be the Bank of America, or Chase Manhattan Bank, or Brinks.”

If you didn’t know that this was written in 1968, you would think that it was tailor made for the time that we are currently living in. No? The main thing that we are missing in 2012 is our own version of the Black Panther Party (with some improvements).

Jan 29 2012

Poem of the Day: From the Great Stevie Wonder…

“Living For The City”

A boy is born in hard time Mississippi
Surrounded by four walls that ain’t so pretty
His parents give him love and affection
To keep him strong moving in the right direction
Living just enough, just enough for the city…ee ha!

His father works some days for fourteen hours
And you can bet he barely makes a dollar
His mother goes to scrub the floor for many
And you’d best believe she hardly gets a penny
Living just enough, just enough for the city…yeah

His sister’s black but she is sho ’nuff pretty
Her skirt is short but Lord her legs are sturdy
To walk to school she’s got to get up early
Her clothes are old but never are they dirty
Living just enough, just enough for the city…um hum

Her brother’s smart he’s got more sense than many
His patience’s long but soon he won’t have any
To find a job is like a haystack needle
Cause where he lives they don’t use colored people
Living just enough, just enough for the city…
Living just enough…
For the city…ooh,ooh
[repeat several times]

His hair is long, his feet are hard and gritty
He spends his love walking the streets of New York City
He’s almost dead from breathing on air pollution
He tried to vote but to him there’s no solution
Living just enough, just enough for the city…yeah, yeah, yeah!

I hope you hear inside my voice of sorrow
And that it motivates you to make a better tomorrow
This place is cruel no where could be much colder
If we don’t change the world will soon be over
Living just enough, just enough for the city!!!!

Jan 28 2012

Slavery By Another Name: Feb 13 on PBS

I am so excited that Slavery By Another Name will premiere on PBS on Feb 13th at 9 p.m. Eastern. It is one of my favorite non-fiction books…

Jan 28 2012

Photo of the Day…

Can you identify everyone in these mugshots? If yes, you win…. nothing unfortunately.

Jan 27 2012

Laura Scott, Female Prisoner, #21270 Part 4

In California as in the rest of the country, little to no attention was paid to women prisoners in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Their numbers were very small relative to male prisoners. In 1904, a year before Laura Scott first entered San Quentin Prison, there were 1,451 men and 27 women incarcerated there (source: First Biennial Report of the State Board of Charities and Corrections, 1903-1904, p. 11).

After a highly publicized trial, Griffith J Griffith was convicted of shooting and wounding his wife and served two years in San Quentin Prison from 1904 to 1906. Before he was imprisoned, he had been very successful as a California business man and philanthropist. He made his fortune in the mining business. Throughout his trial, he consistently maintained that the incident with his wife had been an accident. As soon as Griffith was released from prison in December 1906, he began working on an expose of the conditions there. His account of his time at San Quentin is published in a book by the Prison Reform League (that I have referenced on the blog before) titled “Crime and Criminals.” Everyone with an interest in the early history of prisons in the U.S. should read his account of his time behind bars.

Griffith also offered an expose of the terrible conditions for women at San Quentin that relied on the written account of an unnamed female prisoner who had spent several years incarcerated there. This account was corroborated by several other prisoners before it was published in Crime and Criminals. It is one of the only available first-hand testimonials of life inside San Quentin Prison for women at the turn of the 20th century.

Female prisoners at San Quentin were supplied with only the bare minimum of clothing and other items:

The state supplies each female prisoner every six months with six yards of white cotton, six yards of tennis flannel, and two pairs of hose. She is given also two blue denim dresses and one heavy blue flannel dress, called a “reception dress”. But it does not supply any underwear, corsets, underskirts, garters, hats, bonnets, coats or overshoes, and the sufferings of those who enter without such supplies and have no money to buy them are extreme. For there is no heat in the cells, and the thick walls, when thoroughly wetted and chilled, remain so all winter. ” It would have been amusing, were it not so pathetic, to see the straits to which the women were reduced to find something that would answer for underclothes, and they picked up from the sewing-room floor scraps of cotton flannel and, by great ingenuity and much labor, made garments. These garments, being most bulky, were refused by the laundry, as they broke the wringer.” In one of such garments the writer counted two hundred and forty pieces. The further comment is made that, although the state is supposed to issue the supplies previously mentioned every six months, they are habitually held back. If, therefore, for example, a woman’s supplies are due in April and she is to be released in May, she will be told that the supplies have not arrived, and will leave the prison without getting them.

What kind of work did the women at San Quentin Prison do?

From eighty to a hundred suits of underwear have to be made each week for the use of the men, but this, like the other work, is divided up. One woman acts as cook and there is a diningroom girl, whose duties are entirely below stairs. Nothing is taught that can be of the lightest use to the prisoner after her discharge, the accomplishments to be learned being cigarette smoking — each woman receiving every Monday afternoon her sack of tobacco and package of papers — and other vices. As to which the writer remarks : ” Nearly every woman there has voiced the sentiment, not once but many times : ‘I shall be a thousand times worse a girl when I leave this living hell than I ever dreamed I could be.’ And it is true, for the viler, lower traits are so encouraged, and whatever better impulses one possesses are so smothered and killed, that the entire nature is changed for the worse. This is no idle statement, for we all know that constant fear breeds hate, and from hate spring all the baser passions.”

Interestingly this account about life at San Quentin at the turn of the century spans the years when Laura Scott would have been incarcerated at the prison. Given this reality, when Griffith’s unnamed source mentions that a two-time negress convict worked as the dressmaker of the prison, one might wonder if this could have been Laura Scott herself. Remember that her occupation was listed on prison and arrest records as dressmaker/seamstress. Many of the dates mentioned in the account range from 1906 to 1909. These would have years that overlap with Laura’s time as a prisoner at San Quentin.

The next installment of this story will focus on the purported racial dynamics between women prisoners as well as on how female prisoners were treated by staff (both male and female) at San Quentin. Stay tuned!

Jan 26 2012

Tracey Stevens Narrates Her Re-Entry Story…

I think that the re-entry industrial complex is a racket. Yet real people get out of prison and jail every single day and need to navigate hostile waters on the outside. One such person is Tracey Stevens who narrates her story. I think that her words are poignant and should compel us to REALLY focus on providing opportunities for formerly incarcerated people.

Jan 26 2012

The High Costs Of Locking People Up…More Evidence

NEW YORK, Jan. 26, 2012 /PRNewswire via COMTEX/ — Other state agencies cover billions in corrections expenses

State taxpayers pay, on average, 14 percent more on prisons than corrections department budgets reflect, according to a report released today by the Vera Institute for Justice. The report, The Price of Prisons: What Incarceration Costs Taxpayers, found that among the 40 states that responded to a survey, the total fiscal year 2010 taxpayer cost of prisons was $38.8 billion, $5.4 billion more than in state corrections budgets for that year. When all costs are considered, the annual average taxpayer cost in these states was $31,166 per inmate.

While it is common knowledge that some prison costs are tracked outside their budgets, The Price of Prisons marks the first time these costs have been quantified for prisons across the states. To calculate the total price of prisons, Vera developed a survey tool that tallied costs outside corrections budgets. The most common of these costs were fringe benefits, underfunded contributions for corrections employees’ pension and retiree health care plans, inmate health care, capital projects, legal costs, and inmate education and training.

“This new tool changes the equation. It paints a far more accurate picture of the costs to taxpayers,” said Adam Gelb, director of the Public Safety Performance Project at the Pew Center on the States. “State leaders already have been questioning whether corrections spending passes the cost-benefit test, especially for nonviolent offenders.”

The scale of the expenditures outside of corrections departments ranged from less than 1 percent of the total cost of Arizona’s prison budget to as much as 34 percent in Connecticut. For example, the Connecticut Department of Corrections spent $613.3 million for prisons in fiscal year 2010; when all state costs are included, the total taxpayer cost was $929.4 million. The main outside costs were pension contributions ($147.1 million) and employee fringe benefits, including health insurance ($104.2 million). (For more information, see the fact sheets for states that completed the survey at www.vera.org/priceofprisons .)

The study found the following range of prison costs outside states’ corrections budgets in 2010:

20 to 34 percent in six states: Connecticut, Illinois, Missouri, New York, Pennsylvania, and Texas;

10 to 19.9 percent in nine states: Arkansas, California, Delaware, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maryland, New Jersey, Washington, and West Virginia; and

5 to 9.9 percent in nine states and less than 5 percent in 16 states.

“As states continue to deal with serious budget constraints, it’s critical that policy makers, corrections officials, taxpayers, and legislators know exactly what their prisons cost,” says Vera director Michael Jacobson. “Many states are moving toward reserving incarceration for the most dangerous people and using proven strategies to improve public safety at a lower cost.”

To help policy makers manage prison costs, the report identifies a number of measures that states have taken to reduce spending while maintaining public safety. Options include modifying sentencing and release policies, strengthening strategies to reduce recidivism, and boosting operating efficiencies.

The publication is based on a survey conducted in August 2011 by Vera’s Center on Sentencing and Corrections and Cost-Benefit Analysis Unit, in partnership with the Pew Public Safety Performance Project. The report includes detailed methodology that state officials may use to calculate the full taxpayer price of prisons each year.

SOURCE Pew Center on the States
REPORT: http://www.vera.org/download?file=3407/the-price-of-prisons.pdf
Download the report and fact sheets for each participating state at www.vera.org/priceofprisons.

PARTICIPATING STATES: Alabama, Arizona, Arkansas, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Florida, Georgia, Idaho. Illinois
Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maine, Maryland Michigan, Minnesota ,Missouri ,Montana ,Nebraska, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma , Pennsylvania Rhode Island Texas, Utah, Vermont ,Virginia, Washington, West Virginia , Wisconsin
Copyright (C) 2012 PR Newswire. All rights reserved

Jan 25 2012

Policing Chicago Public Schools: A New Report about School-Based Arrests

Youth Created Art (7/31/10)

Regular readers won’t be surprised to know that I think police officers in our schools are a bad idea. In Chicago, where I live, each public high school is assigned two police officers at a cost of $75,000 a year each. This is in addition to security staff that already work in our schools. In Chicago and other cities across the country, the police serve as a gateway to the school-to-prison pipeline. I believe that a lack of data transparency contributes to the invisibility of this pipeline for most parents and community members. As such, I have spent the past couple of months working on a report about school-based arrests in Chicago Public Schools.

Today, I am happy to announce the release of “Policing Chicago Public Schools: A Gateway to the School-to-Prison Pipeline.” The report analyzes data from the Chicago Police Department to show (for the first time in seven years) the type of offenses and the demographics (gender, age and race) of the juveniles arrested on CPS properties in calendar year 2010.

I am proud to have co-authored the report with my friend Frank Edwards.

From the introduction of the report:
Our purpose in writing this report is to ensure that the public is informed about the scope and extent of policing in Chicago Public Schools. We hope that this will galvanize educators, parents, students, policymakers and community members to advocate for a dramatic decrease of CPS’s reliance on law enforcement to address school discipline issues. Instead, we would like to see an increase in the use of restorative justice, which is an effective approach, to respond to student misbehavior in our schools.

In light of a push for budget austerity, limited resources should be re-directed away from policing and into affirming programs and opportunities for students. This, we believe, will improve the overall well-being of all stakeholders in the educational system (most especially students). We also call on our city council to improve data transparency by passing an ordinance requiring CPS and CPD to report quarterly on the numbers of students arrested in the district. Having timely and reliable information will support efforts to hold CPS and CPD accountable. Finally, we believe that student privacy should be protected rather than further eroded. Current reporting practices between schools and law enforcement do not need to be reformed to increase the exchange of student information between these parties.

You can find the report HERE.

Jan 22 2012

Poems of the Day: Free Write Jail Arts Program

My friends at Free Write Jail Arts and Literacy Program have published a new anthology of student writing and art. They do terrific work with the youth who are incarcerated at the Cook County Juvenile Temporary Detention Center. If you have a few extra dollars, I would like to encourage you to write a check so that they can continue this life-changing work. These young people who are locked behind bars are so talented and they are so worthy of our care. Jail/prison is no place for kids. Below are a couple of poems from the new anthology:

Behind Brick Walls
by Alexandra R.

Sitting down behind brick walls.
Once a week I make a call.
No one to pick up the phone.
Figure no one’s home.
I try and try to figure what’s wrong.
Counting the bricks while I sing a song
not realizing what I have done.
Accepting responsibility had just begun.
Now I’m sitting in a cell
while girls are raising hell.
Try me and you will see
that living in a cell is not the way to be.

This Morning I Woke Up
by Chaseton W.

This morning I woke up
thinking I was in my own bed
“Time to wash up!”
is what they guard said

I opened my eyes
and realized I was stuck
between two brick walls

and that this was not home at all.

This morning I woke up
I decided that I wasn’t going
to sleep no more
I’m tired of waking up in jail
so now I’m restless and starving
for a taste of freedom

This morning I woke up and
asked myself
“who put me here?”
I answered
then I asked
“where do I want to be?”
I answered
“wherever God needs me.”

This morning I woke up
and read the Holy Koran

It said
“One finds himself where
it is easiest for him
to solve his Problem.”