Source: Jason Killinger
“Harmful Intimacy & Undesirable Relations:” Same-Sex Desire & Relationships in Women’s Reformatories…
As I continue to work on my Laura Scott project, I am currently steeped in reading about the history of women prisoners. As such, I am running across a number of mentions about interracial same-sex relationships between working class and poor women who were incarcerated in late 19th century and early 20th century reformatories. What I want to particularly focus on in this post is the way that race and racism were coded and influenced the consideration of these relationships.
Women’s sexuality was heavily policed in the mid-19th through the mid-20th centuries. Many women found themselves locked up in places like the Bedford Reformatory for Women in New York for sex-related “crimes” (including prostitution, out-of-wedlock sex, and lesbian relationships). Sarah Potter (2004) explains:
For example, in 1915, Bedford had a total of 184 new commitments, 102 of whom were imprisoned for sex-related crimes. Some were there on explictly sexual charges, such as common prostitution, violation of the 1901 Tenement House Law, or soliciting. Others were charged with crimes that implicitly assumed sexual promiscuity, such as vagrancy with no known occupation or place to live, frequenting disorderly houses, or running away from home as an “incorrigible daughter,” who presumably offered men sex in exchange for shelter (p.396).
Cheryl D. Hicks (2009) and Sarah Potter (2004), both writing about the Bedford Women’s Reformatory, suggest that prison administrators often documented “harmful intimacy” and “undesirable relations” between black and white women prisoners. Hicks, for example, finds several references in the files of white female prisoners that she studied to women being “fond of colored girls” or “seen passing notes to black inmates.” She adds: “Administrators [sic] portrayed ‘harmful intimacy’ as white women’s heterosexual attraction to black women, whose dark skin color supposedly represented virility (p.435).”
This weekend, Melissa Harris Perry featured Bryan Stevenson to talk about the Equal Justice Initiative’s recent investigation and federal complaint about sexual violence against incarcerated women at Tutwiler prison in Alabama.
The investigation uncovered that prison guards and correction staff at Tutwiler regularly harass, abuse, and rape women prisoners. Stevenson is quoted in the Huffington Post as saying that women who reported the abuse to administrators would find themselves punished for their troubles:
“Many of them reported encounters with the warden that they characterize as abusive, threatening and intimidating,” Stevenson said. “The women report that when you complain, you are placed in segregation and are subjected to very aggressive treatment by investigators and other staff. It is not an environment that encourages people to come forward with instances of abuse.”
Some inchoate thoughts on Memorial Day…
I live in Chicago and so it is not uncommon to hear that fifty people have been shot in one weekend. In fact, just this weekend 25 people were shot across the city. Because of the routine nature of this kind of violence, some of us know at least one or two of the victims either personally and through friends or family. A few weeks ago, I wrote about the “invisible” deaths in Chicago of young men like Anthony Scott, for example. There are so many shootings that we can become inured to them. We have to actively struggle against complacency. It is exhausting but necessary.
Today is Memorial Day, a day that it turns out was first marked by “freed” African slaves in the U.S. There is something strangely fitting about this. Death never feels far removed from black people in the U.S. For too many of the young people who I work with, the specter of death is in fact a constant companion. There is nothing theoretical about it. In fact, they proclaim themselves ready to die while still in their teens. Some social commentators have lamented this as a form of dangerous nihilism. I, however, have learned a lot about how racial oppression can contribute to the development of violent masculine identities from the work of Irwin and Umemoto. I consider the instrumental use of violence by some young people in Chicago to be a rational adaptive strategy in response to racial and economic oppression. A young man who has been behind bars for most of his formative years has told me on more than one occasion that he was always certain that his life only held two viable possibilities: “die on the streets or die in prison.” While he has spent the past five years behind bars, it is my sincere hope that neither prophecy comes to pass.
I just read a review of Ken Burns’ new documentary about the Central Park Jogger case. As I’ve mentioned before, I was born and mostly grew up in New York. In 1989, our city was rocked by the Central Park case. You had to be living in New York during that time in order to fully understand the media freakout over this case. You should read Chris Smith’s essay published last year to get a taste of the climate in NYC at the time.
A white woman who was jogging in Central Park was brutally raped, beaten and left for dead. Within a few days, five black teenagers were rounded up and supposedly “confessed” to the terrible crime. It turned out to be a modern day replay of the Scottsboro case where nine black teenagers were falsely accused of raping two young white women on a railroad car in 1931.
Thinking about the analogy between the Central Park jogger case and the Scottsboro trial has me longing for the heyday of the American Communist Party. Honestly for about a period of 20 years from 1930 to 1950, black criminal defendants never had better friends than the Communists. They were not wholly benevolent nor unproblematic allies. No. They were self-interested and often self-serving. But I would take that over what we have today which is to say generalized apathy.
After All Those Years
by Ajamu C. B. Haki
(1996, Sing Sing Correctional Facility, Ossining, New York)
After being punished
for 10. 15, 25, or more years,
do you think that you’ll want to leave?
Can you imagine anything more terrifying
than walking through those gates
without looking back at that great square wall
that kept you in all those years?
Punishing you and comforting you!
Punishing you and comforting you!
Do you think that you will at least miss it?
That somehow, inside, you loved being here
under the tooth mother’s wings?
You ain’t got to worry about a damn thing!
You ain’t got to worry about a damn thing!
You’re Amerikkka’s greatest son,
the tooth mother’s greatest capture.
She has taught you how to bend your knees,
stand up curved back and mop her welcoming floors,
given you paint to embellish her halls of terror —
And you’ve been smiling all those years at her morbid green,
her institutional colors, her slavery that fits you.
So do you think after all those years of being trained
that you can just un-train yourself and leave?
That you can enjoy the wonderful colors you’ve only enjoyed
as a crayoning child?
After all those years behind these gray walls —
The Sunday pancakes, refried french toast, and greasy chicken,
the Mondays you wish they had something edible,
the Tuesday Yakasorbi murder burgers,
the Wednesday killer liver,
the Thursday everything from the last four days mixed
the Friday lumpy oatmeal and fluorescent Kool-Aid,
the Saturday cold cuts you go down to the mess hall just to
The cycle begins again on Sunday;
and you’ve gone to the mess hall for every meal,
didn’t miss a single meal in all those years.
Now why do you think that you can get use to real food?
Home cooking, a gourmet restaurant,
after you’ve only had seven minutes to eat
and an ulcer bigger than your heart.
After all those years you still think that you can just leave?
Well, maybe, but remember — even though you leave the
the prison will never leave you.
As I have often mentioned, long-term confinement for black people who transgressed the law was rare until after the Civil War. The most widely used form of punishment for slaves in the South was whipping. Christopher R. Adamson (1983) points out that:
“The very idea of imprisonment as a punishment for crimes committed by slaves was a contradiction. The African slave was already a prisoner. Whereas the white felon was punished for violating norms of freedom, slaves were punished for rejecting the rules of bondage. Any idea of rehabilitative confinement for slaves threatened the philosophical basis of the peculiar institution (p.557).”
There were however occasions when a slave might need to be detained while awaiting the administration of “justice” usually some form of corporal punishment (as has already been discussed). Below is a photograph of the Oakridge Jail which was originally located on a Louisiana plantation:
The Oak Ridge jail is believed to be the only surviving pre Civil War wooden jail in Louisiana. The parish sheriff used to lock up any criminals, whether free or slave. It is of plank construction with no corner posts or framing materials. The walls, floors and ceiling are fabricated of three sets of heart of pine boards, laminated together with thousands of nails. This construction technique created a four inch wall that could not be penetrated with an axe or hatchet. Chains and shackles were located on the walls of the two small cells.
Over the years that I have spent working with young people, I have sometimes been confronted with questions that leave me speechless (at least for a little while). I had one of these moments again last week as I was talking with a young man who is navigating some legal troubles. Seemingly out of nowhere, he asked me: “Would you be scared of me, Ms. K, if you didn’t know me?” I just stared at him for what might have been 2 minutes. And that’s a long time to be silent during a conversation. I stammered and asked: “What brings this question on?”
“Well you know that I’ve been looking for work for over a year now and no one wants to give me chance. I’m big, I’m young, and I’m black. Most of the people that interview me are women and some are black women. So I wanted to know if you would be scared to hire me if you didn’t know who I was.”
This was another of those dagger to the heart moments and I have unfortunately had plenty of those in my years of working with youth. I took a breath and I told him that if I were being honest, I would not be afraid of him during an interview but I might be if it were 11 p.m. and we were the only two people walking down the street.
“You know something, Ms. K, that’s why you my peoples. You never lie to me.”
I write only sporadically about gangs on this blog. This is mainly because I most definitely do not consider myself to be an expert on the issue. I have and continue to work with young people who are gang-involved but that certainly only provides me with a very limited understanding. I have also read quite a bit about the history of gangs in Chicago and New York.
The exhibition titled “Report to the Public”: An Untold Story of the Conservative Vice Lords opens on Friday, June 22 at Art In These Times. Below is a more complete description:
In the late 1960s, gang members in North Lawndale decided to make a change and enter the civic arena. With funding from major foundations, they organized youth, protested unfair housing policies and working conditions, and opened small businesses, and more.
They called themselves Conservative Vice Lords, Inc.
In the 1960s, many people doubted their intentions. What would persuade gang members to change? Were the Conservative Vice Lords (CVL) a front for drugs or other illegal activity? Can a gang become a force for positive community change?
Today, we might ask: What is the potential of gang members to bring peace to the streets of neighborhoods like North Lawndale, which has the highest murder rate of any community in Illinois?
This ongoing project was created by a partnership between the Jane Addams Hull-House Museum and former CVL members, led by CVL spokesman Bobby Gore and Benneth Lee, co-founder of the National Alliance for the Empowerment for the Formerly Incarcerated.
Through never-before-seen images and intimate audio interviews, this exhibit opens a conversation with the broader public. It does not glorify or demonize gangs, but rather challenges widely held views of gang members as unredeemable thugs by demonstrating the efforts of CVL to rise above their circumstances and fight for the life of their community.
This museum of the streets will also be located at various sites throughout North Lawndale. Learn about the extraordinary untold history of the Conservative Vice Lords. Meet former Conservative Vice Lords members and listen to their stories. Consider the history and potential of gang members as community organizers.
Since I am still receiving e-mails from people who are incensed that I would even associate the words “restorative justice” with rape, I have decided that there is a great need for me to continue to address these topics on this blog.
Let me begin with a few thoughts about what restorative justice (RJ) is and what it is not:
1. RJ is not a “free pass.” If it is implemented correctly, then it is a process through which participants can create some form of accountability for harm that has been caused.
2. RJ should be a CHOICE. Participants must always engage VOLUNTARILY. No one should be mandated to be part of an RJ process. If you are, then it is NOT RJ but coercion.
3. RJ is not a panacea or a cure-all; it is an approach that can open up the lines of communication.
4. RJ is not free of the isms and power dynamics that create inequality in our societies. This is linked to my point about it not being a panacea. Participants must be checked for their oppressive acts when those manifest themselves in an RJ process.
Next, I have a couple of questions for those who claim to be working in the anti-rape field and insist that RJ puts survivors “lives at risk.” What is the percentage of sexual assaults that are reported to the police? The correct answer is 54%. That means that 46% of rape victims DO NOT report to law enforcement and the younger you are when you are assaulted the LESS LIKELY you are to report to the cops. What percentage of rapists do you think will ever spend a day in prison? The answer is 3%. You read that correctly… 97% of rapists will NEVER spend a day in prison. So the reality is that just over half of victims of sexual assault turn to the criminal legal system in the first place and most rapists will not go to prison. So a huge chunk of survivors do not turn to law enforcement for whatever reasons and the vast majority of rapists are not behind bars. If your goal is to end rape through a criminal legal process then I would say that based on the numbers, the strategy has already failed. So why such vehement resistance to other ways for rape survivors to seek accountability for the harm that we have experienced? What is at the root of the anger?