Dec 29 2013

Prison Culture on (Short) Hiatus & Happy New Year…

It’s hard to believe that we’ve almost come to the end of 2013. This year has flown by & it’s also been incredibly busy. Regular readers know that I run my own organization and am also involved in many other projects in addition.

When I started blogging in mid-2010, I’ll admit that I had no idea how time consuming but also rewarding it would be. This blog began as a running journal for my ideas and rants. It’s now become a space where I am able to engage with others about issues that I care about. I am grateful for that and grateful to those of you who take the time to read and sometimes reach out directly.

Anyway, I start teaching again in January (in addition to running my organization and doing other work). I’m going to take two to three weeks away from blogging to prep for the new year. I of course reserve the right to post a rant should the need arise 🙂 but I am not planning on it.

I wish all of you Happy Holidays and a very Happy New Year. I hope that 2014 brings us more justice and some peace. I leave you with the gift of this wonderful new music video by Climbing PoeTree. Onward!

Dec 28 2013

10 Creative Ways That Chicagoans Addressed Violence in 2013

** This is my final recap of 2013…

Chicago has been in the spotlight over the past few years as the epitome of urban violence. The city has been dubbed the “murder capital of the U.S.” even though this is actually untrue. I’ve written and will continue to write about the various organizing and advocacy efforts by Chicagoans to address interpersonal and structural/systemic violence. Lots of people in this city are working to address violence; many in very creative ways.

Today, I want to focus on some of the creative interventions to address violence in Chicago that I’ve either been part of or have otherwise come to my attention in 2013. Thousands of people were engaged through these projects. There were of course many other efforts that I left off this list. I invite you to submit your suggestions in the comments section. Think about how you can contribute to ending violence in your own communities and then get to work!

1. 500campaign

From NBC 5 Chicago:

After the murder totals in Chicago started racking up after January of this year, South Side native Bryant Cross decided he’d seen enough.

The 28-year-old speech communications professor started thinking of effective ways to spread an anti-violence message and came up with the 500campaign, head shots of Chicagoans with the slogan “Angry Because Over 500 Youth Were Murdered in Chicago.”

**Note: The 500 youth number cited is not at annual number. Over the course of 5 years about 500 young people under 20 years old were victims of homicide in Chicago. One is too many but it’s important to be clear about what these numbers represent.

500campaign (2013)

500campaign (2013)

See more photos on pinterest or instagram.

Below is the founder of the 500campaign, Bryant Cross, talking about his campaign:

2. How Long Will I Cry? A Play and A Book

According to the Steppenwolf Theatre website:

“Woven together from interviews gathered by journalist Miles Harvey and his students at DePaul University, How Long Will I Cry? provides raw, truthful insight into the problem of youth violence. By giving voice to those who know the tragic consequences of violence first-hand—families of the victims, residents of crime-ridden neighborhoods and especially young people—How Long Will I Cry? inspires all of us to join together in search of a solution.”

The play was performed for a month earlier this year and the stories have now been compiled into a book that is available for free to Chicagoans.

“The book contains interviews with 35 people, told in Studs Terkel-style first person: current and former gang members, parents and siblings of young people who have been killed, and cops, lawyers, nurses, and community activists who are working to stop the violence.”

How Long Will I Cry – Book Trailer from Big Shoulders Books on Vimeo.

3. Uproar Chicago: A Community-Curated Audio Collage About Chicago Violence

I initiated this project and solicited support and help from friends to execute it. We asked Chicagoans to summarize their feelings about violence in one sentence. We used a central hotline to gather responses from people across Chicago. The responses were assembled into audio collages. In late April, community members gathered to listen to the audio collage and to participate in a peace circle where we could discuss our experiences and the impacts of violence in our lives.

I talk more about the project here. Below is the main audio collage.

Visit Soundcloud to listen to all of the audio from this project.

Read more »

Dec 27 2013

10 Things To Know About Juvenile Justice & Youth Criminalization in 2013

Last week, I offered a summary of some of the key issues related to the prison industrial complex in 2013. Since the main focus of my work is actually juvenile justice & youth criminalization, I decided to make another list that addresses some key 2013 developments in those areas.

1. The U.S. youth incarceration rate continues to decline but we still lock up too many children.

One of the most heartening trends over the past decade has been the steady decrease in the use of incarceration to address youth crime and misbehavior.


According to a new report:

“For the 2001-to-2011 ten-year period, the number of confined youth declined by 41% nationwide, or an annual average decline of 4.1% — a dramatic drop since 2000, when a record-setting 108,802 youth were held in detention centers awaiting trial or confined by the courts in juvenile facilities in the U.S. The nationwide decline in 2011 (from 70,793 to 61,423 youth) continues the trend from the previous year (the latest for which data is available), which showed youth confinement was reduced by 32% nationwide from 2001-2010.”

Unfortunately, poor black children remain disportionately targeted.


Since all credible research shows that incarceration and detention don’t work, many jurisdictions are relying more regularly on alternatives to youth incarceration.

2. School closings in urban centers overwhelmingly impacted youth of color (black children in particular)..

Victor Hugo has written that: “He who opens a school door, closes a prison.” It stands to reason that the reverse is also true: “He who closes a school door, opens a prison.” Chicago roiled in 2013 with grassroots opposition to the proposed closures of over 50 schools. Opponents contended that these school closings were racist as they would disproportionately target black students and increase the likelihood that they would be pushed out of school. Some background resources about Chicago’s school closings can be found here.


Some of the most vocal opponents of school closures in Chicago, Philadelphia, D.C. etc… were students themselves. 9 year old Asean Johnson became a household name when he spoke out forcefully against Rahm Emanuel at a rally that I attended.

Students at Williams Elementary organized a sit-in to protest their school’s proposed closing.

Williams Elementary School Protest (2013)

Williams Elementary School Protest (2013)

In the end, Rahm Emanuel and his appointed school board shut down nearly 50 schools. This was the largest mass school closing in the U.S.

Bontemps Elementary by Bill Healy (WBEZ)

Bontemps Elementary by Bill Healy (WBEZ)

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Dec 26 2013

2013 in Review: 10 Ways Chicago Youth Organize(d) to Dismantle the Carceral State

One of the many reasons that I love living in Chicago is because of the wonderfully inspiring young people who I am privileged to work with and to know. In 2013, I was as encouraged as ever by their activism and organizing. Below are just a few of the actions and campaigns that I have followed and/or supported in some way. This is not even the tip of the iceberg in terms of youth activism and organizing that has taken place in Chicago this year. For example, many young people protested and organized against ALEC when they came to Chicago for their annual conference in August. Listen to Asha, a young organizer, discuss the group’s problematic nature here. Please feel free to offer your examples in the comments section.

1. Chicago Students Opposing School Closures, High Stakes Testing, and Budget Cuts

by Sarah Jane Rhee (5/15/13) - Vigil to Stop School Closings

by Sarah Jane Rhee (5/15/13) – Vigil to Stop School Closings

Young people were fully engaged in the struggle against school closings. You can find some of the posts that I wrote about their activism and organizing here, here, here, and here.

At the forefront of the student mobilization were the young people of Chicago Students Organizing to Save Our Schools (CSOSOS).

Despite the fact that 50 schools were closed, students are not deterred. They have joined together to launch the Chicago Student Union insisting that their voices be included & heard in any educational decision-making. Chicago student activism hasn’t ebbed as they continue to protest budget cuts, high stakes testing, the school-to-prison pipeline, and education privatization.

2. Trauma Center Campaign: Fearless Leading by the Youth and Rise Chicago

by Sarah Jane Rhee (11/20/13)

by Sarah Jane Rhee (11/20/13)

I started writing about the youth-led campaign to bring a level-1 trauma center for people ages 16 and over to the Southside of Chicago a couple of years ago. This year kicked off with a violent police assault against peaceful protesters (including several youth and adults who I know). There were arrests and eventual acquittals for some of the adult protesters. This event galvanized more people to join in the effort spearheaded by the youth of FLY three years ago to bring an adult trauma center to the Southside.

You can read an update about the campaign (which is ongoing) here. You can read some of my posts here, here, here, and here.

Read more »

Dec 25 2013

Image of the Day: Faces of Lynching Victims #1

I’m still trying to figure out how to present all of the information that I have collected and learned over the past five years of my intensive reading and research about lynching in the U.S. I haven’t yet figured out what to do but for now I will periodically feature the names and faces of lynching victims throughout next year. I’ll start with Paul Reed and Will Cato below.

Paul Reed; Will Cato; Negroes lynched by being burned alive at Statesboro; Georgia.

Paul Reed; Will Cato; Negroes lynched by being burned alive at Statesboro; Georgia.

Dec 23 2013

Death, Life & Imagining Peace in Rogers Park

It is curious how sometimes the memory of a death lingers so much longer than the life it has purloined.” – Arundhati Roy (The God of Small Things).

Last week, a colleague posted on Facebook that another young man in his community was shot in the head.

On Tuesday, he wrote that he was dead.

And my first response was to want to “like” the status update… I got a hold of myself before doing that. There is something about these death announcements that has become rote, quotidian. Our ritual is to hear the news, offer our condolences, and get on with the day. We can’t absorb the magnitude of the losses. We know that the next one is around the corner; the next death is always around the corner. If we allow ourselves to feel… everything, we might stop breathing. It feels that heavy, that overwhelming. At least it does to me.

So I was grateful this weekend to my friends at Occupy Rogers Park and the Chicago Overpass Light Brigade for organizing a peace march & memorial in my community. The weather was miserable: cold and rainy. But a couple dozen people braved the elements to commemorate those we lost to homicide this year and to stand with the living against further criminalization (which is itself a form of violence).

photo by Gretchen Hasse (12/21/13)

photo by Gretchen Hasse (12/21/13)

photo by Gretchen Hasse (12/21/13)

photo by Gretchen Hasse (12/21/13)

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Dec 21 2013

Community Safety Looks Like…Imagining Justice

A few months ago, I saw Morris Justice’s community safety wall project. I loved the idea and decided that it would be great to replicate it in Chicago. Then time got away from me; I got busy doing other things. A month ago, I posted a link to the project on Facebook and asked if any of my friends wanted to create our own community safety wall in Chicago. I got a terrific response and my friend, movement photographer Sarah Jane Rhee offered to help.

So over the past couple of weeks, we collaborated to run a photobooth at the Hull House Museum’s Practicing Peace event and then Sarah continued to ask people to share their thoughts about what community safety would look like at some other events. I’ve uploaded the photos that Sarah has taken to date on Tumblr.

I love this project because it opens space for us to consider the world that we’d like to see and build. It gives us an opportunity to imagine what justice might look like in our communities.

Below are a few photographs. If you live in Chicago, you can participate by sending your own photo to

photo by Sarah Jane Rhee (12/19/13)

photo by Sarah Jane Rhee (12/19/13)

photo by Sarah Jane Rhee (12/14/13)

photo by Sarah Jane Rhee (12/14/13)

photo by Sarah Jane Rhe (12/10/13)

photo by Sarah Jane Rhe (12/10/13)

See the other photographs HERE.

Dec 21 2013

Image of the Day: GA Chain Gang, 1895

A Chain Gang (Georgia, 1895)

A Chain Gang (Georgia, 1895)

Dec 20 2013

Nobody Matters Less Than Black Girls…

These are some impressions…I am thinking through recent experiences.

The saddest fact I’ve learned is: Nobody matters less to our society than young black women. Nobody. – Jim DeRogatis

This Jim DeRogatis quote has floated across my Twitter timeline several times this week. DeRogatis was referencing the lack of accountability for R.Kelly’s repeated sexual assaults of black girls. I must admit to grinding my teeth every time I’ve seen the quote. It isn’t that I don’t agree with the sentiments expressed by DeRogatis. Rather, I don’t believe that 90% of those who are sharing the quote actually grasp the lived realities of too many young black women and girls in America. So the implications of the quote are too easily ignored. But for hyper-disposable black girls, the pain lingers and festers…

“Nobody matters less to our society than young black women.”

I’ve spent the greater part of my adult life working with black girls and young women. I created a workshop that I co-facilitated several years ago focused on using Lil’ Kim’s image and experiences to illuminate our own lives as black girls and women. In other words, I’ve had a longstanding interest in and commitment to engaging in discussions with black girls about issues of representation and survival.

“Nobody matters less to our society than young black women.”

Since Beyonce released her visual album last week, there have been many, many attempts to analyze, dissect, and discuss it. This is not another post about Beyonce. At least, it’s not a post about whether Beyonce is or is not feminist. It’s also not an album review. It’s a post (I think) about the historical devaluing of black American girls and women and its implications for today.

Read more »

Dec 17 2013

15 Things That We Re-Learned About the Prison Industrial Complex in 2013

The engine of the prison industrial complex unfortunately kept on chugging in 2013.


I wanted to highlight some of the key developments as I saw them during this year. There are so many things that I could have included and it was difficult for me to only choose fifteen to list. Truth be told, I initially only planned to feature 10 issues. That didn’t work out. Some things that aren’t on the list include the plea deals that Federal prosecutors coerce from drug defendants under threat of long prison sentences, the treatment of LGBTQ immigrants in detention centers, the political imprisonment of Chelsea Manning, Marissa Alexander leaving jail pending her March 2014 trial and more. Feel free to add your suggestions in the comments section.

1. The Federal prison population has grown to 219,000 people, an increase of 27% over the last decade.

Since 1980, the Federal prison population has exploded by 790 percent. Almost 50% of these prisoners are there for drug offenses. According to a new report (PDF) by the Urban Institute, Federal prison overcrowding will worsen if policy changes aren’t implemented. Federal prisons that are now 35 to 40 percent over capacity could reach 55 percent over capacity by 2023. The Justice Department’s budget for the federal prison system has increased from $5 billion in 2008 to $6.9 billion today.

The Government Accountability Office released a report this month about the Bureau of Prisons. In the report, the GAO attributes the increase of the Federal prison population to several factors including mandatory minimum sentences. In an attempt to address overcrowding, this summer, Attorney General Eric Holder gave “new instructions to federal prosecutors on how they should write their criminal complaints when charging low-level drug offenders, to avoid triggering the mandatory minimum sentences.”

[The Sentencing Project published an excellent fact sheet (PDF) outlining trends in U.S. corrections for those who want to learn more the scope of incarceration. Rosa Brooks’s essay in Foreign Policy provides a good overview about the incarceration nation.]

2. We were still sterilizing women in U.S. prisons as late as 2010.

This summer, the Center on Investigative Reporting broke the story that:

Doctors under contract with the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation sterilized nearly 150 female inmates from 2006 to 2010 without required state approvals, The Center for Investigative Reporting has found.

At least 148 women received tubal ligations in violation of prison rules during those five years – and there are perhaps 100 more dating back to the late 1990s, according to state documents and interviews.

From 1997 to 2010, the state paid doctors $147,460 to perform the procedure, according to a database of contracted medical services for state prisoners.

The women were signed up for the surgery while they were pregnant and housed at either the California Institution for Women in Corona or Valley State Prison for Women in Chowchilla, which is now a men’s prison.

Former inmates and prisoner advocates maintain that prison medical staff coerced the women, targeting those deemed likely to return to prison in the future

The state of California held hearings this fall to collect more information.

Below is a documentary titled “Sterilization Behind Bars” produced by the Center on Investigative Reporting released just last month.

3. Prisons are still sites of violence and abuse.

In April 2013, the U.S. Justice Department announced that it had launched an investigation of Julia Tutwiler Prison for Women. I had written about the allegations of abuse and violence last year. The DOJ announcement came several months after a scathing report about conditions and abuses at the prison was released by the National Institute of Corrections (NIC).

Tutwiler Prison was named by Mother Jones Magazine as one of America’s 10 Worst Prisons earlier this year.

Read more »