Feb 29 2012

Shame and Prison…

“Shame is like everything else; live with it for long enough and it becomes part of the furniture. — Salman Rushdie

I received a letter from a reader of this blog about three weeks ago. I am still processing it and so I am moved to write today about shame. Specifically, I want to write about shame and silence as it relates to prison. I have a good friend whose father has been incarcerated for most of her life. She hardly speaks of him. She says that she doesn’t miss him. I believe her.

When I look in the mirror, I see his face and I feel debilitating disgust,” she once told me.

She was 10 when he went to prison. She is now 37. He will likely never be released.

It is rare when she will bring her father up with me. Though one day, about five years ago, she mused:

What does it say about me that this man is my father?”

Lewis Smedes has written that:

“the difference between guilt and shame is very clear—in theory. We feel guilty for what we do. We feel shame for what we are.”

My friend is and will always be the daughter of a man sentenced to spend his natural life in prison. This is a fact. This is not the end all and be all of her identity though. Yet I fear that she is ‘doing time’ with her father even though she has no contact with him. She is trapped in her identity as the daughter of a ‘lifer’. Worse she is trapped in her “secret” identity as the daughter of a prisoner. This is something to be whispered and to be shared only with those who are blessed to become part of the inner circle of her life.

My friend has struggled with substance abuse. About five years ago, I asked her mother if I could write a letter to my friend’s father. She was taken aback at first but gave me her blessing. I sent him a letter introducing myself as a friend of his daughter and asked if he would answer the following question in writing: “What was the best day that you ever had?” I asked him to be as descriptive as possible in the letter. About two weeks later, I received a response from him and it was 10 pages long. That letter almost ended my friendship with his daughter. But that is a story for another day.

I had hoped that my friend would read that letter and that perhaps she might begin to see her father beyond his fixed identity as a “prisoner.” If she could move away from seeing him as a one dimensional figure, then perhaps (I thought) she could also begin to embrace other parts of her own self beyond the “daughter of a prisoner” identity. While I thought I was being helpful and loving, my actions were not received as such and I almost lost a very good friend.

But five years later, if you wonder if I would still reach out to her father in the way that I did, the answer is yes. For while there is no happily ever after to this story yet, I have seen small changes in my friend. It took her over 18 months but she eventually did read her father’s letter. Last year, she was in Chicago and over dinner she said: “You know he isn’t a monster. It makes a difference to know that somehow.” What difference does it make? I can’t tell yet. But I know that as she begins to humanize her father, my friend will begin to embrace her own humanity as well.

As I said, there is no happily ever after to this story. And that’s OK.

Feb 28 2012

The Jailers Need New Jobs…

by Rachel Marie-Crane Williams

Well it’s been a very eventful past few hours. Yesterday’s post about closing Illinois prisons generated pitched comments and “discussion” on my organizational facebook page. Several former and current staff members from one of the youth prisons recommended for closure decided that they wanted to make their voices heard. Here are some of their responses:

I work at iyc Joliet & I strongly disagree with the closing of these institutions, work there b4 u speak against a system that keeps violent people off our streets

You want to know a little about what we do at IYC Joliet (Illinois Youth Center). We help by providing Care and Custody. Many of our youth receive needed counseling, therapy, and appropriate academic services while with us because we provide a level of security custody and control that our school systems can’t. We house and care for violent individuals who have failed to comply with the rules while housed at lesser secure facilities. We are closer to the city of Chicago (where most of our youth come from) enabling parents, advocates, and legal teams, who aid in youth therapy to visit without extensive travel. WE house young men ranging from 16-21 who are locked up for crimes ranging from rape to capital murder. This is no day camp. Some of these guys are HABITUAL CRIMINALS and will be IN and OUT of the system for the REST OF THEIR LIVES! WE work with a population that America wish’s didn’t exist. WE work side by side with the rapist, the murderer, the molester….do you want these guys to roam YOUR neighborhood freely because some politician failed to comply with an established budget? We should keep IYC Joliet open because we’re effective at what we do

Before you think about closing these facilities see how these youth personally assault you just for doing your job. What makes you think they wont hurt you or your loved ones out on the streets when they are already murderers, rapist, etc. They dont care what you or anyone else has to say. They listen to the gangs they are in. The youth at IYC-Joliet are facing adult charges and the majority are young adults aging 18-20. Know the facts before you jump to a conclusion about putting them back on the streets.

Obviously this so called group does not care about the safety of the community!!! She like the havoc that these criminals reak on society! This group feels like the criminal should not pay for the crimes that they have committed. Please tell me how do you sleep when someone’s loved one is 6 ft under but you push for the MURDERER to go free!!!

Iyc-Joliet doesn’t house children!!!! These are mostly 18-21 year old men!!!!! Do you watch the news? All of the teens killing people and raping kids are at IYC-Joliet. This prison houses the worst 250 juvenile males in the state!! Go ahead and try and mentor the 18 year old who has killed three people or the 17 year old who beat his mom to death with a hammer or the 18 year old who raped a young girl in a basement at her friends birthday party (oh yeah and he was on parole… Where was NIA then…????) Maybe they can come and live at your house so you can mentor and love them.

1st of all, I absolutely agree. There are better ways to prevent young people from doing fucked up things. You can start with letting parents discipline their kids with out the fear of DCFS knocking in your door saying your abusing them. 2nd thing, their are places kids can go to get treated and the help they need. They all don’t just get thrown in jail. Understand this. The juveniles we have at IYC JOLIET need a lot more than you think. Over half these kids are looking at doing some serious time for some serious crime. Juveniles that do petty crimes don’t just come to IYC JOLIET. This is the LAST stop befor they go to an adult facility. If you close IYC JOLIET these “violant offenders” that you said project nia doesn’t want to go free will in fact, be set free into your community.

If you all do in house assessments be prepared to be there by yourself these youth are not going to be in their houses waiting for you. These youth will be out in the streets doing some of the same things that got them incarcerated. I laugh at the bleeding hearts it takes a special person to work with these youths and you all are not one of them. These youth will do unspeakable things to each other and staff. Go and visit just one facility and I pray that you go to IYC Joliet and I hope they take you on a tour of Dorm 4 or even Dorm 3 or maybe even better Dorm 7. Get a clue we protect you so you can sleep at night and know that your family is safe and sound, no one is going to come and rape, murder, or kill you and your family because we keep the worst of the worst at bay and under control behind these walls we call IYC Joliet.

we are Hard working people trying to make a living just like the rest of you. We do a job that many of you could not and would not do!!! Q: what do u do when someone comes in your house in the middle of the night? what do you do when you come home and someone has killed a family member? What do you do when you come home and your Child is being Raped? What do you do when you get robed on the street? do you call the police or do you talk and try to council them????

What comes across in these responses? What do you notice?

Fact: Less than 35% of youth in Illinois youth prisons are incarcerated for violent crimes. Less than 1% are incarcerated for murder.

Fact: The Governor has recommended closing IYC-Joliet and TRANSFERRING the youth currently incarcerated there to other youth prisons in the state.

Fact: It costs an average of $90,000 a year to incarcerate a young person in Illinois.

Then in the midst of all of those comments, I saw this one from an incredible young woman I know and I smiled because it reaffirmed why I do the work that I do:

“Wow, there’s a whole lot of ignorance going on around here…Project NIA is a fantastic organization that cares about the wellbeing and rehabilitation of young people, as opposed to their imprisonment. No adults take advantage of children and force them to make cards for terrible youth in jail…have you ever stopped to think that maybe if somebody actually showed these imprisoned youth that they CARE that maybe they wouldn’t act out in the ways that they do? I’m not saying that youth in prison haven’t done some horrendous things…I’m saying that they are still young people and we should be supporting them and helping them learn from their mistakes, not imprisoning them so that they never have a chance to change or find a better life. I happen to volunteer at a juvenile detention center and I make it my business to work with at-risk youth, as a former foster kid. I really don’t appreciate YOU adults who act like you know everything about what these children have been through. They are not lost causes. They are not inherently terrible. A lot of young people reoffend within hours of release because they don’t have homes to go to…did you ever think of that? Seriously, Project NIA provides articles and reports with statistics of imprisonment and strives to fight the racism, classism, and adultism that results in the imprisonment of our youth. Anyone that can read could see that, and anyone with even the smallest amount of compassion would believe in HELPING troubled youth rather than keeping them behind bars. People like you make me sick to my stomach, but you’re all the inspiration I need to continue to fight a corrupt system.”

Feb 27 2012

On Closing Prisons in Illinois… A Time For Action

It’s been a long time coming but last Wednesday, Governor Quinn announced that he was recommending the closure of two adults prisons (TAMMS and Dwight) and two youth prisons (IYC-Murphysboro and Joliet). Closing the two youth prisons alone is expected to save the state over $17 million dollars in a year.

Last year, Gov. Quinn had already recommended that IYC-Murphysboro be closed. I wrote about the resistance that emerged to his recommendation here. Elected officials and unions successfully postponed the closure of Murphysboro. The unions in this state are well-organized and committed to keeping their members’ jobs. Anti-prison advocates are less organized and we were unsuccessful in countering the arguments advanced in favor of keeping the prison open. We have another chance now. Before I get further into my discussion about the youth prisons, I want to take a moment to say a few words about TAMMS-Supermax prison which is also on the closure list.

Tamms Cells (2009)

TAMMS is and has always been a bad idea. It is a torture chamber that keeps prisoners locked in cells 23 hours a day. My friend Laurie Jo Reynolds, the lead organizer of TAMMS YEAR TEN , put it best in a recent interview when she said that “Illinois fell for a “foolish national trend” in the 1980s and built a “vengeful and wasteful prison” the state didn’t need.” The seeds of TAMMS’s destruction were sown from its inception.

For just a glimpse of the horror that is TAMMS prison, I recommend that you read the Dart Society’s recent investigative report about solitary confinement. I defy you to read these words by Anthony Gay who is locked up at TAMMS and not be moved to action:

“I’ve been trapped for approximately nine years. The trap, like a fly on sticky paper, aggravates and agitates me,” he writes. “America, can you hear me? I love you America, but if you love me, please speak out and stand up against solitary confinement.”

In introducing their photo documentary of TAMMS, the Chicago Tribune described the prison as follows:

Conditions are harsh, and meant to be. For at least 23 hours a day, prisoners sit in solitary confinement in 7-by-12-foot cells. There is no mess hall. Meals are shoved through a chuckhole in cell doors. Contact with the outside world is sharply restricted. For a rare visit from relatives or friends, inmates are strip-searched, chained to a concrete stool and separated from visitors by a thick glass wall. There are no jobs and limited educational opportunities.

These words are tame. They do not capture the true horror of life at TAMMS. This article in the Tribune begins to get at some of it. So I am asking you to in the words of Anthony Gay, “please speak out and stand up against solitary confinement.” You can do that very easily by signing this petition thanking Governor Quinn for his recommendation to close TAMMS. For more background on TAMMS, read this essay by the terrific folks at Solitary Watch.

Finally, I want to say a few words about the experience of being locked in a cell when you are 15 years old. I am currently working with a young man who is now 19. He spent two years between the ages of 15 to 17 locked up at IYC-St. Charles (a youth prison in Illinois). He was traumatized by the experience. It will take years for him to heal. He cannot sleep because he is plagued by nightmares. He is not alone in this. I have worked with many many young people who are broken by the experience of being incarcerated. It is time for us to utilize community-based alternatives to incarceration as the FIRST resort. Prison is “no place for kids.” If you live in Illinois, please take a moment to sign this petition thanking Governor Quinn for his leadership and encouraging him to hold firm on his recommendation to close these facilities. It will only take a moment but you will be making a real difference.

Feb 26 2012

Prisoners & Medical Experimentation: Willing Bodies?

I came across this photograph last week and I decided to buy it.

This is an original press photo dated 12/1/1961 that appeared in the Chicago Sun Times with the following caption:

One of the convicts who exposed himself to malaria sits in a hospital bed at Stateville and takes a pill that may cure him of malaria.

I was intrigued by this history since I know nothing about it. Some quick internet research led me to an article by Bernard Harcourt titled “Making Willing Bodies” which documents a history of the University of Chicago’s medical experimentation on prisoners at Stateville.

In 1944, 432 Stateville prisoners were infected mosquitoes carrying the most virulent strain of malaria under the supervision of medical researchers from the University of Chicago. Harcourt (2011) describes the process:

The first “bite day” was March 8, 1944. The procedure took longer than expected. The plan was to bite sixteen prisoners on that first day, and “each man had to have the same number of first bites, second bites, and third bites” (Leopold 1974:310). Each mosquito was in a little cylindrical cage that was placed up to the skin of the inmate: “You took a mosquito, placed its cage on A’s forearm and watched carefully until the mosquito bit him. Then, when you were sure that the mosquito had inserted its proboscis well under the skin, but before it had had a chance to fill up with blood, you lifted the cage gently from A’s arm and placed it on B’s. Here, too, the mosquito must have a chance to bite, but not to fill up with blood. Then you placed the cage on C’s arm, and here you let the mosquito ‘bite out’— drink its fill” (Leopold 1974:310).

Easier said than done. Many of the mosquitoes did not cooperate, others were not sufficiently infected after dissection, and so it took until 3 a.m. that first day to get the job done—with all the doctors and researchers gradually leaving, eventually letting a single doctor finish with the assistance of Nathan Leopold, the notorious Stateville inmate of Leopold and Loeb infamy, who would participate actively in the human experiments as lab technician, as researcher, and as volunteer. In all, each of the inmates “received the bites of ten infected mosquitoes” (Alving et al. 1948:3; Leopold 1974:310-11).

Each of the prisoners who participated in the study signed a “consent” form. The initial cohort of prisoners who participated in the study were white and had to submit to a battery of medical tests. The impact of the medical experimentation on prisoners is contested history:

According to the official story and the news media, none of the Stateville prisoners suffered fatal harm as a result of the malaria experiments. The Chicago Daily Tribune reported that “None of the volunteering convicts died but many were made violently ill as a result of their infection with vivax malaria and subsequent treatment with drugs then in the experimental stage” (Howard 1947:10). Leopold’s memoir, though, tells a slightly different story and does include at least one inmate death directly associated with the testing of antimalarial drugs (1974:320). For the rest of the inmates, the experiments tended to be extremely painful. The malaria was a virulent strand, one of the most potent. When Leopold had it, he claimed, it caused headaches “unlike any other headache in the world. You think from moment to moment that your head is going to split, and you wish to gosh it would!” (1974:321).

As the historian Nathaniel Comfort notes, “No longitudinal study was performed on the Stateville prisoners to assess the long-term effects of these regimens. Heart failure is now a known side effect of some synthetic antimalarials. Leopold suffered two heart attacks while on the malaria project and eventually died of heart failure in 1974” (Comfort 2009:195).

Harcourt (2011) makes that case that some of the prisoners who participated in this study saw themselves as contributing the war effort. They saw themselves as “good soldiers.” The University of Chicago Malaria study ended in the mid-1970s when the country decided to stop using prisoners for medical experimentation. Harcourt writes: “Since then, we no longer inflict disease intentionally on sacrificial bodies—even with their formal consent. Human subjects committees and institutional review boards now police that domain of research and ensure that human subjects are not treated like laboratory animals (p.7).”

Harcourt compares the prisoners who “consented” to participate in these medical experiments at Stateville under coercive conditions with the young soldiers who were conscripted to serve during World War II under threat of incarceration. He offers interesting ideas about the true nature of “consent” specifically with respect to the use of our bodies by the State.

Many reading this might want to ask why prisoners would “willingly” subject themselves to painful medical experimentation. Harcourt invites the reader to reframe that question:

Rather, the question to ask is how the prisoners’ apparent willingness to catch malaria was achieved. How was their consent fabricated? And here, the answer turns out to be somewhat less remarkable than expected: by the ordinary means of governance, by associating the sacrifice of the body to citizenship and country, by raising the national flag, by framing everything through the lens of the war effort; by investing these prisoners and soldiers in their own destiny, nurturing them, and turning them into entrepreneurs of their own will (Foucault 2004:232-36); by joining “the care and governing of the polity to the care and governing of the affective self” (Stoler 2009:71).17 It is a device that is, as we have seen, extremely productive.

What this episode illustrates is the State’s immense power to get us to ” manufacture consent.” Harcourt expands on this idea:

“The implications, though, are stunning—in two significant ways. Stunning, first, because, if consent can be achieved within Stateville prison, surely it can be achieved anywhere. If we can convince ourselves that these inmates volunteered and that their consent was legitimate—despite the fact that they were in formally coercive conditions— then it must not be hard to manufacture consent elsewhere. And not surprisingly, we do. We produce willingness in our everyday lives—willingness to accept the daily and banal routines of service, work, family life, and citizenship. Like the prisoners at Stateville, we make ourselves feel the need to sacrifice ourselves—to serve, to abide, to agree—by associating self-sacrifice with fidelity, devotion, citizenship, and patriotism. These associations—of sacrifice and family, work, country, or beyond that, humanity—are the techniques of governance that produce willing subjects. They help produce experimental subjects in prisons, at the extremity of consent-making; but they also produce daily acts of submission. The new mother who stops working in order to follow her husband or care for her children; the act of childbearing itself, as a sacrifice of one’s body for one’s family; the wage-earner who accepts a night shift or takes a second job to provide more for his or her children; the taxpayer who pays for things she really does not believe in, like war, sex education or abstinence programs—all of the sacrifices that we make in our daily lives, how often they are placed within the rubric of fidelity to family, to political community, to country (p. 17).”

Read the whole article, it is extremely interesting and thought-provoking.

Feb 25 2012

Poem of the Day: And in the U.S.A.

And in the U.S.A.
(State of emergency in New Brunswick, N.J.)
by Miguel Algarin

If something is not done
Criminal Justice will collapse,
or worse, there will be riots in jails
just like those in Essex, Union, and Bergen Counties.
Prisons overflow, they can’t hold,
there’s no space, the courts dismiss everything,
only extreme cases are retained,
though it’s still difficult to hold on to
people who react with brutal crimes.
The hitch is in the rapid dismissals,
can’t keep up with those handcuffed,
the courts are jammed,
the list of fugitives grows.
If beds aren’t found,
the jails’ll explode,
set on fire by inmates
who yield to violent passions.

Feb 24 2012

“We Don’t Defend Murderers”: The Case of Jerry Newson

I have complex feelings about the NAACP. On the one hand, it is impossible to imagine where I would be as a black woman in the 21st century without its contributions to the movement for racial justice. In the early 20th century, the organization led a long-term campaign against lynching and during the civil rights era it fought successfully to desegregate schools and public accommodations. On the other hand, time and again I have come across stories about the NAACP turning down the cases of people of color who were not perceived to be “model” clients.

I recently came across the story of a young black man named “Jerry Newson” as I was doing some research about false police confessions. Newson was an 18 year old young man living in Oakland who was accused and convicted of murdering two people in 1948. The case apparently became a sensation at the time.

On October 22 1948, two people were found in a drug store shot through the head “execution-style.” The victims were a pharmacist named Robert Savage (who was white) and his clerk Marjorie Ruth Wilson (who was a light-skinned black woman). The police were quoted at the time as suggesting that the motive for the murders was robbery and that about $600 was missing from the store. This crime shocked the West Oakland community and a number of local resources were deployed to apprehend the culprit(s). The police were under pressure to solve the case and after a few days, they settled on Jerry Newson as the prime suspect for the crime.

Newson was born in 1931 in Louisiana. He came to live with his aunt and uncle in Oakland in 1944. He quit school in the 11th grade and leased a shoe shine stand at the corner of 11th and Broadway.

On October 25, 1949, two police officers J.J. Murphy and John H. Strum found Jerry Newson in a local poolhall and told him that they had some questions for him. They were investigating a robbery that had occurred on October 13th at the Harbor Home projects. The robber had gotten away with $1275 dollars. Jerry admitted immediately that he had in fact robbed the rent office of the Harbor Home projects. The robbery was described as follows:

“Jerry had entered the rent office on October 13 in broad daylight wearing a loud colored shirt. Once in the office, he brandished an empty .45 automatic, belonging to his Uncle James, and ordered the money turned over to him.”

He later told the policemen about the gun, “I forgot to put the cartridges in.” Jerry Newson was no master criminal: he left fingerprints at the scene of the robbery and could be easily identified by the victims of the robbery.

During his questioning about the Harbor Home robbery, the police discovered that Jerry Newson had been acquainted with both Robert Savage and Marjorie Wilson. In fact, he had shined Mr. Savage’s shoes and had “bought barbecue for Marjorie.” The police saw an opening and secured a “confession” about the murders from Jerry.

His lawyer, Robert Treuhaft, offers this account of Newson’s alleged “confession”:

They started interrogating him about the murder, and he said, oh yes, he knew Doc Savage the pharmacist, and he’d been in the drugstore lots of times. They were old friends of his. So they said, “Well, did you do it?” He said, “No, no. I was a friend of Doc’s.” They said, “Well, where were you?” Well, he had an alibi. But he’d been with a friend named Harris. So they went out and arrested Harris. They both denied everything, but they kept them for another week under interrogation with no lawyer; and then took Newson to Berkeley for a lie detector test. Berkeley had the equipment; and they had a man there, Inspector Riedel, who supposedly knew how to use it.

So, what actually happened was that he was in this contraption for some time, totally new to him, and the questions kept coming in a dozen different forms, did you do it, did you do it. And finally he said, “You want me to say I did it. I did it. Let me go home now.” So the press, a dozen reporters, were outside the room waiting for the word, and Inspector Riedel said, “He confessed.” So they all rush in and Riedel says, “Would you write this down?” And he says, “What do you mean? I was kidding. I didn’t do it.” Well, that was the sum total confession.

The first time that Jerry Newson saw an attorney was on October 30th, five days after his arrest. Robert Treuhaft was a Civil Rights Congress attorney whose wife had approached Newson’s family with an offer to help. The first words that Newson said to him were: “I don’t know whether I need a lawyer, I told them all about the Harbor Homes robbery the day they arrested me, and I didn’t do the murders. So what do I need a lawyer for?” Little did Jerry know what he was in store for him. He also told Treuhaft that he had been placed in solitary confinement, interrogated for 18 straight hours, and only been given one bowl of mush during the entire time of his incarceration.

Newson was tried and ultimately convicted of first degree murder on May 18,1950. He was sentenced to die in the gas chamber at San Quentin.

After the trial, Truehaft was contacted by a couple of technicians in the Oakland Police Department who wanted to speak off the record about the firearm evidence. Truehaft explained:

“They called me up and said, “Don’t, whatever you do, let that firearms evidence get out of the courtroom. Make sure that it is preserved.” So then they met with Bert and me privately, in our office. “We know our business,” they said. “We could not find a match. There are always accidental matches. They sent this evidence over to this big-shot in San Francisco, a hot-shot expert. When he couldn’t find a match, they took it away from him and they sent it to this guy in Berkeley. When we heard that he claimed that he had a match, we said we’d like to see it. And we went out to his laboratory, and we rotated the bullets and we couldn’t see it. He had an assistant show us. We only saw what one called `accidentals,’ which you see anytime but which disappear when you rotate the bullets.

“Those photographs though are absolutely phony. That white line doesn’t exist. There’s supposed to be a hairline within the microscope that separates the two fields. We asked him [Kirk] why there was no hairline, why they had to draw the line in by pencil — he said, well, something was wrong with the equipment, and we got this white space in between. Then he drew his pencil lines in such a way that instead of separating the two fields as a properly adjusted hairline should, it goes through the edge of the field of one bullet. When you do that, it’s obvious that everything on either side of the line will match.”

“I’ll never forget those men, Fuller and Davis, good Catholics, who put their jobs on the line by giving us affidavits for use on our motion for a new trial. We lost on the motion for a new trial. Death penalty cases go directly to the State Supreme Court. The Supreme Court reversed the conviction, not on the firearms evidence, but on other grounds, and ordered a new trial. Well, having won on the Supreme Court was a tremendous victory. The guy had been in death row for about a year.”

Jerry Newson was not set free after the Supreme Court reversed his conviction. There were two more trials (with the third trial ending in a hung jury). Truehaft recounts what happened next:

And so, after three trials, the murder charges were dismissed. But Newson didn’t go free. He had pleaded guilty to the earlier offense — robbery of the housing project. For a first offense, an eighteen-year-old would usually get a maximum of five years and he would be out in a year and a half. Well, he was kept in jail for eleven years on that robbery conviction. Every time he came up for parole, Coakley would warn the Parole Board, “This man’s a killer, we know he’s a killer. Something went wrong in his trial, but it’s your responsibility. If you let him out, you’re letting a killer out, a murderer.” And the parole authority never did grant parole. Finally, we went to Court, and finally prevailed on a writ of habeas corpus. But anyway, it’s a long, long history, and it was fascinating.

I had certainly never heard of Jerry Newson and the story is indeed a fascinating one. But it was this sentence that really stayed with me from Truehaft’s account: “The NAACP had refused to take the case. I’d gone to them. I went to a meeting of the executive board, and I said, “Look, we need you in this case.” They said, “We don’t represent murderers.”

Feb 22 2012

‘Jail, No Bail’: A Strategy of Civil Disobedience

Last week, I watched an interesting documentary that aired on my local PBS station. It focused on the origins of the “Jail, No Bail” strategy implemented by the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) during the Civil Rights Movement.

Below is a trailer for the documentary:

I was unfamiliar with the story of the Friendship Nine before watching the film:

“On the morning of January 31, 1961, a group of eighteen African-American civil rights demonstrators (thirteen men and five women), most of whom were students at Friendship College, converged on the McCrory’s 5-10-25¢ Variety Store in downtown Rock Hill. Authorities had been notified ahead of time that there would be protests and they were on duty by 8:30 AM in case of trouble. Initially the protesters marched up and down the street carrying protest signs. Then, male demonstrators went inside the store and ten of the thirteen young men sat down at the counter and refused to leave.”

When the young people were arrested, they were ordered to pay a $100 fine or be sentenced to 30 days of hard labor. The young Freedom Fighters decided to serve the 30 days of hard labor. This was the beginning of the codification of a “jail-in” strategy in the black freedom movement. Even while they were locked up, the SNCC students protested and brought attention to the brutal conditions of their incarceration. Claybourne Carson, author of In Struggle: SNCC and the Black Awakening of the 1960s, suggests that:

“For students, the Rock Hill “jail-in” was an attempt to revive the student movement by returning to the moral principle of non-cooperation with evil that was the basis of passive resistance (p.32).”

I find the history of the black freedom movement rich and endlessly fascinating. I am very interested in how black people have interacted with the carceral state throughout history. The black freedom movement provides a good opportunity to explore the themes of captivity and freedom.

Below is a report from the News Hour on PBS about the documentary. If you have a chance to see it, you should.

Feb 21 2012

The “Magic” of A Peacemaking Circle

By Bec Young - Just Seeds Artists' Cooperative

This is a piece written by my friend and former colleague Clay Chalupa. Clay is a gifted counselor and mental health professional. I wanted to reprint this piece here because I am often asked about the value of peace circles. I think that Clay does a wonderful job of illustrating the value of circles in this excerpt of a piece she wrote last February.

Recently I have been working with adjudicated youth on probation who have been given mandated community service hours rather than being placed in juvenile detention.

I am often asked how we utilize restorative work for youth who already have been arrested and are often struggling with staying in school. What role can restorative circles play in helping youth in trouble with the law repair the harm that they have done to the community?

The effectiveness is so apparent when one is given the opportunity to be a part of this programming that it makes it almost hard to explain. The shift often comes quickly—as a sullen youth arrives looking as if he would rather be anywhere but here after a long day at school. “Oh no. Not another class where I am expected to participate and act respectful. How long do we have to be here?”

Then they see the Ceasefire men arrive to join us. “Oh no. Now we are going to be lectured about how if we keep getting into trouble we will end up behind bars in a prison.” “Okay. Give us our orange vest and we will go out and pick up garbage in the park.” No. That is not what we will be doing. We are going to do meaningful community service. But first, we are going to explore and strategize what that means.

The “magic” starts when we take our place in the circle. I explain briefly that we are sitting in the circle because each one of us will have the opportunity to speak as we pass the talking piece around. No one is the EXPERT. We are all part of the whole. We are all sitting equal distance to the center that holds the truth, the answer, the story. If we are not ready to speak, we can pass. Still, to be a part of the circle we will all actively listen.

“That’s it?”

Well…it may not appear to be profound…and yet, in every circle there are myths that are deconstructed, relationships formed, voices being heard. A few examples:

A photo was passed around of a tall black man with locks and his cap falling off to one side. He looked like he was passed out with one hand covering his face and it seemed he might fall out of his chair if started, as he was slumped down with his shoulders sliding off the back of the sofa.

“I’m going to pass this picture around and have everyone look at it and write whatever thoughts you have about this man. Where do you think he lives? Does he have a job?
What kind of food does he eat? Does he own a car? Did he go to school? Would you want to know him?” “Does he look kind?”

Each person spoke when they were passed the talking piece. Comments were abundant with judgement. And not very positive.

“He looks high on ganja. He looks like he might be homeless and broke. The man is not kind–I wouldn’t go near him. He looks lazy.”

After everyone spoke, I explained that the man was an award-winning, highly sought-after musician who travels internationally and extensively. He is someone who values prayer, meditation, and compassion more than his career. He is generous and intelligent. The picture was taken by someone in Paris as he was jet-lagged and was waiting for a concert to begin after a sound check. He was sleeping.

“Oh wow. We shouldn’t be judging people.”

“Well, I think we have to make judgements sometimes—it is part of our human nature and it can keep us safe and help us make decisions. But perhaps, we can remain open in our judgements to learn more about people and not make assumptions from one glance.”

This started one of the best and honest discussions about racial profiling and being labeled as a troublemaker. The youth talked about how they have no place to go to meet with friends as they are often stopped and searched and told they cannot loiter. Still, where can they go on a hot July night at 9 pm without money?


In another circle we talked about mandated anger management. It has been enlightening to me that many of these programs talk about anger as if it were an unnatural, depraved emotion that can or should be exorcised from people. I read a quote from Audre Lorde: “ My anger has meant pain to me but it has also meant survival, and before I give it up I’m going to be sure that there is something at least as powerful to replace it on the road to clarity.”

Again, another thought-provoking circle ensued. Anger is human. It can be used as protection, as a motivator, and fuel, as a warning signal that something needs to be changed. “Maybe WE could go to a CAPS meeting and talk to the police and ask them what we are supposed to do when we are unfairly harassed and searched.”

This led to more exploration regarding accountability and how youth who are disconnected from their communities and thought of as “problems”—how can they feel accountable for their actions? How can they care about their community that doesn’t seem to care about them?

These questions and stories came from the youth who only a couple weeks earlier, had walked in saying, “What are going to do? How long do we have to be here?” Now they come into our space and tell me that they know friends at school who want to come to our program.

We cannot address problems and issues if we do not recognize and listen to one another. That is what we are doing here. And together we are going to develop real-life strategies and tool-kits to get through. Together—our community.

Feb 20 2012

One of the ‘Throw Away’ People…

Today is National Occupy Day in Support of Prisoners. I am glad that folks around the country are coming together to bring needed attention to the plight of those we lock in cages. We should be in solidarity with prisoners every day.

"Words Break Down Walls" by Molly Fair (Justseeds)

A pen pal of mine who has been imprisoned for the past 10 years once told me that he saw himself as one of society’s “throw away” people. His words have stayed with me. They have pushed me to write letters to incarcerated people even when I have been at my most exhausted. It seems a small thing: a letter. I have learned however that isolation is one of the most difficult parts of being behind bars. The sense that you have been forgotten can sap you of all hope. We are only human in relation to other humans. Our need to be connected to one another is often overlooked but it is essential. Prisoners remind us of this on a daily basis.

So today, if you are not planning to take part in any of the actions that are being planned as part of the National Occupy Day in Solidarity with Prisoners, I make a humble request. Please consider becoming a pen pal for an incarcerated person. Organizations and projects like the Write to Win Collective (here in Chicago), Black and Pink, and Razor Wire Women provide you with an opportunity to connect with prisoners who would appreciate corresponding with you.

I haven’t been well over the past few days. My energy is low so it would be easy to just pull the covers over my head and stay in bed. Instead I’ll be spending my afternoon in a local arts center making cards and writing letters with young people who have incarcerated relatives. “Showing up” is the best way to express solidarity so that’s what I will be doing. As I am writing my letters today, I will keep Jimmy Santiago Baca’s poem in mind:

Letters Come to Prison
by Jimmy Santiago Baca

From the cold hands of guards
Flocks of white doves
Handed to us through the bars,
Our hands like nests hold them
As we unfold the wings
They crash upward through
Layers of ice around our hearts,
Cracking crisply
As we leave our shells
And fly over the waves of fresh words,
Gliding softly on top of the world
Flapping our wings for the lost horizon.

1976, Arizona State Prison-Florence, Florence, Arizona.

by Sarah Rhee

Update: A special thanks to my friends who came out this afternoon to help and participate in our card-making event at Rumble Arts Center. I was so moved by the beautiful sentiments expressed in the cards. We heard from a woman who told us that she had been incarcerated seven times and knew how important it was to receive mail while locked up. Here is a photo taken by the amazing Sarah Rhee of some of the terrific cards created by a couple of wonderful girls.

Feb 19 2012

Poem of the Day: Shakedown & More

Shakedown & More
by Paul Mariah (1937-1996)

Silver is missing
From the messhall;

Prisoners suspect.
Cells torn open
Like wounds

Setting out
In search of
The germ,

The spoon stolen,
Each frisked
As he returns

To his cell.
Shakedown for

All known hands
Are checked
For shivs.

One lives in
Terror that it’s
Not marked

For him. Still
It may be found
As a ring on

Newly wedded hand
Or as a worse attack
A knife in the back.

Soon after Paul Mariah arrived in the San Francisco Bay Area from an Illinois prison in 1966, he became a leading figure in gay literature. In his writings, lectures, and poetry readings, Mariah continually struggled for recognition of the rights of both gays and prisoners.