May 31 2013

“We Are Not Criminals:” Immigration Reformers in a Box

Over the past few weeks, I’ve been having a Facebook conversation with my friend Rozalinda about the “comprehensive immigration reform (CIR)” bill. It began organically and is informal. It’s intended to be a bit of a stream of consciousness conversation of the sort folks used to have in the French salons of old (but hopefully less pretentious :)).

Rozalinda has archived our conversation here. For those interested in immigration issues and in the carceral state, I invite you to read Rozalinda’s thoughts in particular, she is really brilliant and visionary. Today, I’ve decided to share my latest Facebook note. Both Rozalinda and I invite others to join in the conversation. Feel free to leave comments, ideas, and thoughts at the blog. The more the merrier…

Dear Rozalinda,

It’s taken a few days to respond because as you know I am always swamped with work.

As I’ve been slowly making my way through this “immigration bill,” I have of course noticed that it explicitly excludes people with criminal convictions (of various kinds). Frankly, I understand why it would be framed in this way. I am assuming that the bill’s writers think that this will make it more palatable to certain constituencies. It ensures that only the so-called “deserving” will have access to this potential “gift” of status normalization and citizenship.

The focus on excluding “criminals” has been the part of the bill that has absorbed most of my attention and interest. I want to address myself to some of the points that you raise about immigrant detention and deportations. Writing on the Al-Jazeera blog, Beth Caldwell offers some useful historical context about the uses and purpose of deportation:

“Deportation has a long track record as a tool used to rid societies of people deemed socially undesirable, and excluding those with criminal convictions from immigration reform is consistent with its historic use. Political theorist William Walters traces the origin of modern deportation to political banishment employed by ancient Greece and Rome, the expulsion of poor or religiously unpopular groups during the Middle Ages in Europe, and the forced movement and genocidal practices of Nazi Germany.

Walters argues that during the late 19th century and early 20th century “states increasingly used deportation as a way of governing the welfare of their populations, both by excluding the socially ‘undesirable’ (paupers, prostitutes, anarchists, criminals, the insane, excludable races, etc) and by removing foreign labour… during periods of economic recession”.

The emergence of the term “criminal alien”, designed to both demonise and alienate, exemplifies the relationship between American immigration policy and social cleansing.”

Interestingly within the immigration advocacy community, deportation as a concept is almost never troubled. It is taken as a given that we must deport people. Here’s a quote from a press release announcing a new report that was published by Human Rights Watch:

“The US government is turning migrants into criminals by prosecuting many who could just be deported,” said Grace Meng, US researcher at Human Rights Watch and author of the report. “Many of these migrants aren’t threats to public safety, but people trying to be with their families.”

So advocates are explicitly conceding that some migrants can and should “just be deported” rather than prosecuted for their “crime” of living without documentation in the country. It’s a major concession in my opinion and buys into the framing of the state.

While the current “CIR” bill moves through the Senate, the Department of Homeland Security budget appropriation bill is also being debated on a parallel track. I was particularly interested to read a couple of days ago that Texas Congressman John Culberson “secured language in the [appropriation] bill that requires Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to use all vacant public and private sector detention facilities to house the detained illegal alien population. ICE will no longer be able to claim it does not have the space to lock up illegal aliens, thereby preventing them from arresting and detaining them.”

So as the Congress works to supposedly “reform” the immigration system on the one hand, on the other it is preparing for the jailing and incarceration of more people. This is something that is basically happening out of the view of most Americans. In addition, the current Senate gang of eight bill includes provisions suggesting that borders must be certified to be “secured” before the “path to citizenship” can officially open for millions of undocumented people. This means that deportations MUST necessarily continue in order for the promised “path to citizenship” to open. What kind of Faustian bargain is this?

While the political rhetoric focuses on deporting “dangerous criminals,” according to ICE’s own statistics in 2012 nearly 35% of the people kicked out of the country had drug or alcohol convictions. The “dangerous criminal” formulation is of course a canard. But it’s an effective one because it is shorthand in this country for those who can be disposed of and those who should be demonized & discounted.

Here’s the problem [as I see it] in addressing this aspect of CIR, we haven’t done a good job opening up the space for discussions about prison abolition in the broader culture. This therefore greatly constrains our ability to have transgressive conversations about ideas such as “criminal aliens” within the context of CIR. Here’s an example of what I mean. While prisons are places where we warehouse people to punish them in this country, they also do the ideological work of isolating and disappearing undesirable populations in the name of “rehabilitating them” and protecting the “good” citizens. This is very important to remember as we talk about immigrants who are always categorized as desirable or not. The rhetoric in the “immigration bill” and more importantly in discussions about the bill suggests that we don’t want to criminalize” and lock up the “good immigrants.” This bill institutionalizes these distinctions and creates new ones. As such, a lot of work has to be done by advocates to prove that immigrants are in fact “good.” It’s a trap and one wonders if advocates are inevitably doomed to fall into it.

The irony of all of this is that the carceral state is deeply invested in circulating “conversion stories” about the “reformed criminal.” Rehabilitation is supposed to be a central tenet of the American prison system. Prisoners themselves often adopt this rhetoric in their writing and in their speeches. They talk about prison being ‘the best thing’ that ever happened to them. They talk about being ‘changed’ or ‘transformed.’ This language and these ideas are embedded and reified within the culture at large. It’s a story that everyone knows. It explains the popularity of films like the Shawshank Redemption.

But interestingly, CIR offers no possibility of a “conversion story” for an immigrant who has been criminalized. That person is automatically disqualified from a quest for citizenship. The immigrant who is criminalized is forever a ‘criminal’ and will be precluded from ever gaining citizenship rights. Why can’t the immigrant be ‘rehabilitated?’ What does this mean about what the country actually believes about the possibilities of so-called ‘rehabilitation’ for ‘criminals?’ How can we use this seeming contradiction as the basis for calling for prison abolition? If the prison is abolished, will we also be rid of the concept of ‘rehabilitation?’ Does this then afford us an opportunity to get outside of the constraints of the concept of “criminality?” These questions are, I think, deserving of more consideration. Without answers though, I think that this leaves immigration reformers in a box that they cannot escape. I want to think more about this box and what it keeps contained when I have a chance…

In the meantime, I’ll give Beth Caldwell [who I cited earlier] the final word:

“The immigration bill currently pending in the US Senate further exacerbates the demonisation of immigrants – primarily Latino and black – who have gotten into trouble with the law. In doing so, the bill falls short of its stated purpose of being “comprehensive” in its effort to reform immigration law. It fails to address some of the most problematic aspects of contemporary American immigration law, including the forced separation of American families.”

May 31 2013

From My Collection #20: Georgia Prisoners

More from my collection of prison photographs…

From My Collection (Georgia, 9/6/1937)

From My Collection (Georgia, AP, 9/6/1937)

Chow Time
“These convicts were right on time in answering the mess call at the new Georgia prison, in Tattnall County near Reidsville. The prison is expected to sound the death knell of the Georgia chain gangs.”

May 30 2013

Black Deaths and The Fight For Trauma Care on the Southside…

“Cause everybody dies in the summer.
Wanna say ya goodbyes, tell them while it’s spring.
I heard everybody’s dying in the summer, so pray to God for a little more spring. — Chance The Rapper

Summer is around the corner in Chicago… These words have a specific meaning if you live in this city. I was thinking about the summer on Tuesday as I sat in an auditorium at the University of Chicago with over 400 people. It was packed and this meeting had been three years in the making. The young people from Fearless Leading By the Youth and their adult allies had spent that time organizing, researching, petitioning, sitting in, and dying in for an opportunity to meet with the administrators of the University of Chicago Medical Center (UCMC). Their demand: to establish a level 1 trauma center for adults on the southside of Chicago.

“They merking kids, they murder kids here
Why you think they don’t talk about it? They deserted us here
Where the fuck is Matt Lauer at? Somebody get Katie Couric in here
Probably scared of all the refugees, look like we had a fucking hurricane here.” — Chance The Rapper

There are over 800,000 people who live on the southside and some neighborhoods are particularly plagued by gun violence. Yet gun shot victims are often taken miles away from their communities to access the critical trauma care that they need. The cruel distance contributes to our untimely deaths. Many community members have found this to be unjust over the years but it was the young people of FLY, who after the death of their friend Damian Turner in 2010, mobilized to change the situation.

STOP U of C Trauma Center Protest

STOP U of C Trauma Center Protest

As I listened to the UCMC administrators tout the ways that their institution already “promotes health and wellness” on the southside, I admit that my mind was also wandering. I took notice of the diversity of the crowd: a mix of young and old, medical students and local community members, black, latin@, white and asian folks, people in wheel-chairs and the outwardly able-bodied. I felt some sadness as the spectre of death loomed in the space. Here we all were in this room having to affirm once again the value of black lives. UCMC said that the lack of trauma care on the southside was a “societal” problem and they were of course right. But it still felt like a deflection from its responsibility as a medical institution to save more black lives. This is our relentless mourning song. It’s a familiar one to young men like Chicago-born and raised Chance the Rapper and his peers.

But my sadness and frustration were also tempered by hope. The UCMC administrators, who had previously refused to meet with community members about their demand for a trauma center, were in fact now doing so. They had been pressured into talking with us. They also changed their tune about the fact that no new trauma center was needed on the southside. Dean Kenneth Polansky said there was in fact a need for trauma care services but that UCMC could not afford to provide them. This was the message they conveyed.

As the administrators tried to bring the meeting to a close, the intrepid and dedicated Alex Goldenberg grabbed the microphone. He thanked the organizers for finally engaging with the community and then said what had been left unspoken throughout the meeting:

“The deaths that we’re talking about are Black deaths. If White people were dying at the rate that Black people die, this hospital would have had a trauma center a long time ago. You know it’s true.”

Alex added: “We’re not going to go away until you do more.” And so the struggle to establish a level 1 adult trauma center on the southside will continue. I believe that the community will ultimately prevail. Because it’s literally a matter of life and death…

by Sarah Jane Rhee

by Sarah Jane Rhee

Update: The following video from the Medill News Service does a good job summarizing the events.

May 29 2013

Policing Chicago Public Schools (Volume 2): Youth School-Based Arrests, 2011 & 2012

A significant part of my work involves locating and analyzing data. I’m a data nerd at heart. In November 2010, I launched the Chicago Youth Justice Data Project (CYJDP). My goal was to make juvenile justice-related data more easily accessible to local community members in Chicago. However, I only care about data to the extent that it can be a tool to help mobilize people for action and to perhaps inform policy.

Since CYJDP launched, I have been heartened by the positive feedback that it has received. Community members and organizers have been in touch with me to ask various questions, I facilitated a data workshop in late 2011 that was very well-received, and we have written and published several reports. Some of the reports have been cited by local policymakers, used in media reports, and most importantly to me, they’ve been incorporated in local organizing efforts.

Today, I am excited to unveil “Policing Chicago Public Schools (Volume 2).” This is a report that I co-wrote and co-produced with my friend Eva Nagao. Eva is the genius who actually designed the report and the site. I love the fact that we are experimenting with interactivity. I am incredibly grateful to her for this and so much more. She has volunteered her time with my organization for over a year now and without such support we could not do what we do.

Policing Chicago Public Schools (Volume 2)” relies on data from the Chicago Police Department (CPD) to show the types of offenses and the demographics (gender and race) of the youth arrested on CPS properties in calendar years 2011 and 2012.  The report builds upon the 2010 data that we presented in January 2012.

CPD reports its data by police district rather than by individual school so this year we also worked with students from Loyola University to create an interactive application that allows individuals to search for crime and arrest data by school for the 2011-2012 school year too.

The key data points in the report are that:

  1. Overall youth school-based arrests have been decreasing. In 2010, over 5,500 arrests of young people under 18 years old took place on CPS properties. In 2011, the number of youth school-based arrests (18 & under) was 4,959 and in 2012, it was 4,287.
  2. Black youth are still disproportionately targeted by these arrests. While they represent about 42% of CPS students, black youth accounted for 75.5% percent of school-based arrests in 2012.  This mirrors the general trend of disproportionate minority contact within the juvenile legal system.
  3. In 2012, young men were more likely to be arrested on CPS properties than were their female counterparts [68% vs. 32%].
  4. Most youth school-based arrests are for misdemeanor offenses (84%) as opposed to felonies (16%).
  5. In 2012, 86% of youth school-based arrests happened in school buildings while 14% took place on school grounds.
  6. In 2012, the top three aggregate numbers of youth school-based arrests were in the 8th, 5th, and 4th police districts.  Together these three districts accounted for 30% of total youth school-based arrests on CPS properties.

You can read the full report here. I am really proud of what we’ve done to make this report interactive. I hope that you will take the time to browse.

Below, you can find an infographic that Eva created to help summarize the key findings of the report (so, so exciting).

Read more »

May 29 2013

Poem of the Day: For Assata by Audre Lorde

by Alixa Garcia (Arise for Assata Project)

by Alixa Garcia (Arise for Assata Project)

For Assata
New Brunswick Prison, 1977

In this new picture your smile has been to war
you are almost obscured by other faces
on the pages
those shadows are sisters
who have not yet spoken
your face is in shadow
obscured by the half-dark
by the thick bars running across your eyes
like sentinels
all the baby fat has been burned away
like a luxury your body let go
the corners of your mouth turn down
I cannot look into your eyes
who are all those others
behind you
the shadows are growing lighter
and more confusing.

I dream of your freedom
as my victory
and the victory of all dark women
who forego the vanities of silence
who war and weep
sometimes against our selves
in each other
rather than our enemies
Assata my sister warrior
Joan of Arc and Yaa Asantewa
at the back of your cell.

by Audre Lorde

May 27 2013

Guest Post: Redemption, Transformation and Justice, Part 2 by Kay Whitlock

CI: Redemption, Transformation & Justice, Part 2
Kay Whitlock

“I’m against the death penalty on principle,” a colleague said recently. “But when I think of what Ariel Castro did to those women and that kid in Cleveland, I wonder what punishment other than death could possibly suffice.” A friend of mine, normally a gentle soul, was livid: “He ought to be drawn and quartered.”

Not only had Castro kidnapped, held in captivity, raped, and tortured three adult women – Amanda Berry, Michelle Knight, and Gina DeJesus – for periods of 9 to 11 years; Berry bore a child and Castro forcibly impregnated and caused Knight to suffer miscarriages. Prosecutors have said they will add murder (“feticide”) charges.


It’s always like that in the aftermath of both real and purported horrific acts of violence or transgression, the race to retribution and vengeance, incited by cases so chilling, so abhorrent that they evoke in us waves of rage and dread.

And in the midst of those powerful emotions, many of us find ourselves awash in our own violent feelings. It’s the kind of electric current feeling that can too easily turn a crowd of ordinary folks into a group of vigilantes; a paramilitary border patrol; a lynch mob; people who torch synagogues and mosques.

That’s the feeling: “Kill the evil. Destroy it. Erase it.” As if the capacity for terrible violence existed – well, somewhere else. Not in us. Not in mainstream society and its systems. It exists in the archetypally dangerous Them. The Menacing “Other.” And the only thing we can think of to help soothe our fear, our dread is the violent erasure of that which frightens and enrages us.

But most of us couldn’t possibly imagine engaging in mob violence. We stand for justice, not against it, right? Right. And still, many of us will permit our most potent feelings of rage, dread, and fear – often fed by media’s “if it bleeds, it leads” dictum and sensational coverage – to be transmuted into structural forms of violence.

This is also the electric current of emotion that powers crime policy in the United States and that limits mainstream awareness and discussion of its violent impacts. It is what too often permits the criminal legal system to function as mob by proxy.

The horrific violent offender – real or imaginary – is the image that is deployed to stop serious discussion about justice that seeks to redeem and transform rather than to administer brutal punishment.

  • It’s the image that not only tells us that we need a death penalty, but that prisons are inevitable and that the people in them deserve every form of brutality they receive.
  • It is that image that that tells us that prisons create “safety.”
  • It is the image that shores up the spiritually corrupting notion that the lives of “criminals,” especially those who have done terrible violence to others, cannot and should not be redeemed.
  • It is the image that distorts the justice visions of both the Right and the Left.

So let’s start with the current embodiment of that image.

The harm Ariel Castro has done is incalculable, and he must be held accountable for his actions. The three women and the child he held in abusive captivity deserve every possible form of assistance to mend their shattered, interrupted lives. But could he redeem his own life, even if he never goes free another day in his life? Is redemption even possible?

What might be possible (though never guaranteed) if we learn to transform our own desires for vengeance and retribution? If we confront our own fears more directly, with the intention of not having them control our policies? If we commit to forms of justice that value reclaiming and redeeming the lives of all who have been touched by violence – and that seek to change the social and economic conditions that produce so much violence?

The answer, of course, is in the hands of those who have done harm. Surely it was possible for Charles Ramsey, convicted of three felony domestic violence offenses, who completed his sentences, and also worked to transform himself. Unlike the police, he rightly named and came to the aid of a woman who he suspected was suffering from exactly that kind of violence. Surely it was for Stanley Tookie Williams, whose story of redemption and transformation can be found here. (See Of Charles Ramsey and Stanley Tookie Williams ~Redemption and Transformation, Part 1).

Another glimpse can be found in the terrible violence in South Africa that continued to unfold, even in the dying days of formal apartheid.

Read more »

May 26 2013

The Drug War: Still Racist and Failed #17

David Simon speaks some truth:

The occasion was staged by the Observer and chaired by its editor, John Mulholland, as part of its campaign to address the global drugs crisis.

Simon took no prisoners. In his vision, the war on – and the curse of – drugs are inseparable from what he called, in his book, The Death of Working Class America, the de-industrialisation and ravaging of cities that were once the engine-rooms and, in Baltimore’s case, the seaboard of an industrial superpower.

The war is about the disposal of what Simon called, in his most unforgiving but cogent term, “excess Americans”: once a labour force, but no longer of use to capitalism. He went so far as to call the war on drugs “a holocaust in slow motion”.

Simon said he “begins with the assumption that drugs are bad”, but also that the war on drugs has “always proceeded along racial lines”, since the banning of opium.

It is waged “not against dangerous substances but against the poor, the excess Americans,” he said, and with striking and subversive originality, posited the crisis in stark economic terms: “We do not need 10-12% of our population; they’ve been abandoned. They don’t have barbed wire around them, but they might as well.”

As a result, “drugs are the only industry left in places such as Baltimore and east St Louis” – an industry that employs “children, old people, people who’ve been shooting drugs for 20 years, it doesn’t matter. It’s the only factory that’s still open. The doors are open.”

Only a rich white man can make such statements and still be taken half-seriously by some elites. As such, I hope that he keeps speaking publicly…

May 26 2013

Image of the Day: Lucy Burns

The following is an iconic 1917 photograph of Suffragette Lucy Burns in jail.

Lucy Burns in Occoquan Workhouse. Harris & Ewing. November 1917.

Lucy Burns in Occoquan Workhouse. Harris & Ewing. November 1917.

May 25 2013

Chicago Public School Closings 101: 10 Things To Read and Hear…

Over the past few months, I have heard a number of people speak about Chicago school closings. Unfortunately, many people were woefully uninformed about the key issues. As a public service, I have aggregated some articles and resources that I found most informative and useful in understanding the Chicago school closings struggle. I have intentionally limited the list to 10 items.



Fact Check: Chicago school closings by Becky Vevea and Linda Lutton, May 16, 2013 – If you only read one piece, read this one. It provides the most comprehensive consideration of all of the claims that have been made by the Chicago Public Schools about the necessity to close over 50 schools.

Common Sense on School Closings by Curtis Black, May 20, 2013 — Curtis does a terrific job in this post separating lies from truth.

CReATE Research Brief on School Closures by Chicago Researchers and Advocates for Transformative Education, March 19, 2013

Chicagoans Talk About What Will Be Lost If Their Schools Close, WBEZ (Audio), May 22, 2013

CPS Closings: Interactive Map with Affected Schools, Gang Lines by Mark Konkol, May 21, 2013

Analysis and Larger Context

Disaster Capitalism, Chicago Style by Kenzo Shibata, February 22, 2013

Marching in Chicago: Resisting Rahm Emanuel’s Neoliberal Savagery by Henry A. Giroux, May 20, 2013

No Act of God Caused Chicago Schools to Close by Rev. John Thomas – CHICAGO THEOLOGICAL SEMINARY, May 23, 2013

School Closings, Spring 2013 Issue of Catalyst Magazine

Where The Real Danger Lies by Marilyn Katz, May 23, 2013

Reactions and Aftermath – [BONUS ITEM]

Karen Lewis Reacts to Largest Mass Closure of Public Schools in U.S. History

Watch the following excellent video. The struggle continues!

May 25 2013

Prison Architecture #2

Below is an antique postcard featuring the City Jail in Mansfield, Ohio. The postcard is postmarked Feb 1909.

City Prison (Mansfield, Ohio) - Antique Postcard, 1909

City Prison (Mansfield, Ohio) – Antique Postcard, 1909