Jun 30 2012

It’s Been Two Years of Prison Culture…

I launched this blog two years ago yesterday with these words:

In the upcoming days, this site will catalogue some of the information that I come across as I research the way that the prison industrial complex intersects with all aspects of U.S. culture. I hope to blog about interesting articles that I have read and to include new resources that I find useful. I will also use this site as a way to document how the prison industrial complex operates and the ways that it is impacting U.S. society.

I can hardly believe that two years have passed. Time really does fly. When I started blogging, I had ZERO experience with the medium. I taught myself about wordpress by reading “WordPress for Dummies.” I was a real novice who had no idea of the dedication and the time that it takes to consistently blog.

When I launched the blog in June 2010, I simply wanted a container for all of the ideas that are always swirling around in my head. I had no expectations at all that others might be interested in what I had to say. I did hope that those interested in prison reform, prison abolition, and anti-violence work might find some useful resources on the blog. That was my only expectation.

Now two years later, I am so humbled that this blog has garnered a small and loyal following. I am always both surprised and happy when I hear from readers who share personal stories with me and who share particular resources as well. I am even grateful to those who may not be regular readers but still reach out to register complaints and concerns about something that I have written. I am a nerd at heart and I love engaging with contrary ideas.

As the blog has evolved, it has become a mix of my voice embedded within sociological theory, the voices of prisoners, and also has a decidedly historical bent. This is definitely because of my personal biases. I am mostly comfortable writing about what I know (my own experiences which include my training as a sociologist), I am committed to humanizing prisoners so their voices are important for me to feature, and finally I am a history buff so the blog privileges that too.

In the upcoming year, you can expect much of the same here. I would like to feature even more prisoner voices on the blog. I will continue to invite my very brilliant friends to share their ideas here too. I am hopeful that more of them will take me up on this in the upcoming year. Finally, I will keep sounding the alarm about the inhumane and destructive impact(s) of the prison industrial complex on individual lives and on our society as a whole.

I thank each of every person who has ever read anything on Prison Culture. I appreciate your engagement profoundly. I look forward to another year of blogging…

Jun 29 2012

From My Collection #3

This is the equivalent of what would come to be known as the FBI Wanted posters. It is a notice for an escaped prisoner named Frank Smith dated 1921. It is printed on cardstock.

Jun 27 2012

The Soledad Brothers Defense Committee: A Brief Consideration

In January 1970, three black inmates at Soledad Prison in California were killed. A guard named O.G. Miller was accused of the crime and then exonerated of the murders. Shortly after prisoners at Soledad heard about this development, a white guard named John V. Mills was found dying in the television room of the prison. He had been severely beaten and seemed to have been thrown from the third floor tier into that room. Mills later died. Right away, prison officials suspected retaliation for the death of the three black prisoners. They accused three Soledad prisoners, Fleeta Drumgo, John W. Clutchette, and George Jackson of Mills’s death.

by Katy Groves

Jackson was at Soledad serving a one-year-to-life prison sentence for a robbery he committed at 17. By this time, he had already spent 10 years behind bars for that crime. He was a victim of California’s indeterminate sentencing laws. All three prisoners maintained their innocence and their case became a cause celebre across the country but particularly in California. Several Soledad Brothers Defense Committees were established.

Angela Davis, famously, became a member of a Soledad Brothers Defense Committee in the Bay Area and began to correspond with George Jackson. She credits that relationship with sparking her interest in understanding the political functions of prisons.

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Jun 26 2012

Musical Interlude: Modern Day Slavery

One has to listen to Immortal Technique several times to appreciate all of the nuance in their lyrics. This is one of my favorites from them.

Jun 25 2012

“Losing the Movement:” Black Women, Violence & Prison Nation

Last week, I was privileged to organize an event for a project that I am affiliated with called Girl Talk. As part of the event, my friend, the brilliant Dr. Beth Richie spoke about her new book “Arrested Justice: Black Women, Violence, and America’s Prison Nation.” I can’t recommend the book any more highly.

Beth suggested on Thursday that the book is to some extent autobiographical, in part tracing her personal involvement as an activist in the anti-violence against women and girls’ movement. In reading the book, I found my own story also represented in the history that she illuminates through her research.

Today, I want to focus on one key aspect of the thesis that Beth advances in the book. She contends that the “success” of the anti-violence against women and girls’ movement in passing legislation and gaining public legitimacy was in large part due to the increasingly conservative political climate that was emerging in a parallel way. That conservative political climate emphasized a “law and order” and “tough-on-crime” approach to addressing social problems.

Beth pointed out in her talk that many activists within the anti-violence movement (particularly women of color and queer people) spoke out about the fact that increasing criminalization would adversely affect certain populations. Their voices, however, did not win the day.

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Jun 24 2012

Of Kitchenettes and Black Death: Illustrating the Structural Roots of Violence

I have a complicated relationship with Richard Wright. But that is a story for another day. Still, I admire him greatly as a thinker and writer.

In 1941, he published a book titled “12 Million Black Voices.” In it, Wright brought together his words about the condition of black people in America with some amazing photographs from the WPA. I love this book for a number of reasons including the fact that he makes the history of black people in America accessible and understandable.

When I first read the book many years ago, I was particularly struck by several paragraphs where Wright masterfully distills how structural oppression manifests in individual lives. I haven’t come across a better and more simple illustration of the impact of structural violence in the lives of black people since. So today, I thought that I would share a few of those paragraphs on the blog.

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Jun 23 2012

Guest Post: Peace, Finally, for Rodney King/No Justice, Still, for Us

Peace, Finally, for Rodney King/No Justice, Still, for Us
by nancy a heitzeg

“There can be no justice without peace and there can be no peace without justice.” ~
Martin Luther King Jr

The man who became the self-described “poster child for police brutality” was found at the bottom of the pool he built on Sunday. Twenty years after the videotaped beating and ensuing riots that made him reluctantly famous, Rodney King was dead at 47.

Despite bearing the internal/external scars of that brutalization, King still carried forth, in his new book, The Riot Within: My Journey From Rebellion to Redemption, the simple message he delivered in the midst of the riots, “Can’t we all get along??”

In the end, Rodney King believed he found some measure of Justice. And now, at last, Peace.

The rest of us??

Not yet.

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Jun 22 2012

From My Collection #2

Just because Angela Davis rocking a mini-skirt looks awesome… This is another one from my collection of photographs.

Angela Davis arriving for her trial in April 1972

Jun 21 2012

“Casual Cruelty:” They Hate Our Children…

I was listening to my friend Emma on the radio yesterday morning. She was talking about the need to curtail suspensions, expulsions, and arrests in Chicago Public Schools. Toward the end of the segment, a man who identified himself as handling school discipline at Bowen High School in the 1990s, called in to say that he wanted Emma to clarify something: “Was he supposed to sit gang affiliated students down to talk with them about why they were doing what they were doing?” He wanted her to assure him that this was not what she meant when she was discussing the need for restorative practices to be adopted in public schools as an alternative to suspensions and arrests. Of course, his question was a rhetorical one. His point was that some young people who attend Chicago Public Schools deserve harsh treatment. Some of them, the ones he identified as “drug kingpins,” should be punished, dismissed, and removed from schools. You can listen to the interview here.

I’ve heard this man’s voice and seen his attitude for my entire life. It’s the voice of a prison guard who tells me that I am “naive” and that I don’t know that these prisoners are really “animals.” It’s the voice that seems to be reserved for black and brown young people in this country. Richard Wright described black people’s treatment at the hands of what he called the “Lords of the Land” as “casual cruelty.” The term has always resonated with me.

I know that there are in fact some young people attending Chicago Public Schools who are gang affiliated. I work with some of these youth. They are, however, by no means “drug kingpins” though. My friend Dara posted something on Facebook a couple of days ago that I think bears repeating. She made the point that while the lethal violence in some neighborhoods in Chicago was in fact real and unacceptably pervasive, “we HAVE to understand how state violence, mass incarceration, disenfranchisement and repression have been a precursor and intimately intertwined in so much of this violence.” Dara’s point, however, is lost on the man who called into the radio show. For him, some of our youth, those suspected to be gang members, deserve only punishment. Trying to understand the root causes of why they are involved in a gang at all would be a fool’s errand.

Dara beautifully articulated what I struggle to write about on this blog. I don’t condone the use of lethal violence and I don’t excuse it. Yet I think that we can only address this by understanding its root causes. Context, however, is met with impatience. People want easy and inexpensive solutions. But if we don’t properly define the terms then we will misdiagnose the problem and be unable to find the right cure.

Reflecting on his childhood in captivity, Olaudah Equiano who was stolen from Africa at the age of 11 and brought to America, wrote:

“When you make men slaves you deprive them of half their virtue, you set them in your own conduct an example of fraud, rapine, and cruelty, and compel them to live with you in a state of war.”

I think that we are currently making a whole class of people living behind bars as well as those living in the prisons of our inner cities into slaves compelling them to live with us in a state of war. This is not new, in fact it is as it ever has been…

Note: For those who are interested in the history of gangs in Chicago, don’t forget that Report to the Public, an exhibition about the Conservative Vice Lords is opening tomorrow evening at Art in These Times. Details can be found here.

Jun 20 2012

The Mental Torture of Incarceration…

photo by Sam Love – Protesting to Close TAMMS

Yesterday, we learned that Governor Pat Quinn is still planning to close several prisons in Illinois over the objections of the union and many elected officials. It is a real act of political courage. If you are from Illinois, please consider taking a couple of minutes today or tomorrow to thank Gov. Quinn for sticking to his recommendations: Springfield: 217-782-0244, Chicago: 312-814-2121

One of the prisons that the Governor will close is TAMMS-Supermax which I have written about several times on the blog. Simply put: TAMMS is a torture chamber where prisoners are kept locked in their cells for 23.5 hours a day. Many groups, particularly TAMMS YEAR TEN, have been advocating for years to close the facility. It is almost too much to believe that this might be coming to pass.

As a reminder of the mental torture that is incarceration, I want to share an excerpt from another letter written by Alfred Hassan, a prisoner whose letters were published in a 1972 book titled “Maximum Security: Letters from Prison.” His words are searing and powerful and true.

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