Category: Mass incarceration

Jan 28 2015

Marissa Alexander Did Not Die…

Marissa Alexander didn’t die.

In spite of her husband threatening to kill her & the state of Florida relentlessly pursuing social death, Marissa walked out of a Duval County jail yesterday. Alive.

She had a hearing and thankfully the judge accepted the terms of her plea deal with the state of Florida which means that she gets to go home to spend the next two years electronically shackled under house arrest. And this is supposed to be “justice” for her. We are expected to be relieved and in many ways we are. The state is so diabolically effective at criminalizing and killing our friends that the bar has been lowered regarding what counts as victory.

image by Jennifer Kernica (2015)

image by Jennifer Kernica (2015)

Marissa spent 3 years in jail and has also served a year already under house arrest. All told, she will have spent over 6 years under some form of incarceration and state supervision for firing a warning shot to defend against her abusive husband. No one was hurt by the shot and yet Marissa has lost years of her life.

I became aware of Marissa and her plight in 2011. In 2012, after Trayvon Martin was killed & her name became more well-known, I paid closer attention to her legal tribulations. I wrote my first post referencing her conviction in May 2012. It was an essay focusing on how women of color have historically been denied access to self-defense when faced with violence. I specifically related Marissa’s story to that of Inez Garcia. For the most part though, I didn’t get actively involved in Marissa’s defense. I was busy with many other projects and I saw that she had support from the Free Marissa NOW National Mobilization Campaign.

photo by Sarah Jane Rhee (11/24/14)

photo by Sarah Jane Rhee (11/24/14)

In early 2013, I saw a photograph of some white comrades holding a banner in support of Marissa at a Chicago rally and it pushed me over the edge. I was relieved that people in my city were lifting up her name and I was embarrassed that white people were the ones publicly showing her solidarity. How could a city like Chicago, home to thousands of Black people, not have a local defense committee to support her? The question kept gnawing at me. I was still swamped with other work and felt that I wouldn’t have the capacity to take on building yet another organization.

In the summer of 2013, I finally decided that I would organize a teach-in on Marissa’s case. I’d host it on her birthday in September in response to a national call to action by FMN. I reasoned that if participants were exposed to the injustice of the case and provided with an opportunity to organize on her behalf that they would. It’s exactly what happened. The twist was that, while I initially warned that I would only be able to serve as a sporadic adviser to the local defense committee, I ended up getting drawn into a co-organizer role fairly early. Working with my fellow Chicago Alliance to Free Marissa Alexander (CAFMA) organizers has been one of the best prisoner defense committee and organizing experiences that I’ve had.

I’ve written briefly about the importance of a defense committee for prisoners:

“Marissa Alexander is a person. She is also fighting a case and that case illuminates a greater cause. But she is a human being. This is something that can be overlooked. It’s easy to do for a number of reasons. Most defendants are advised by their attorneys to keep quiet while facing charges. This creates a vacuum. If the defendant is lucky, others step in to speak for them and to act as their surrogate filling in the gaps in their story. This is the position in which Marissa finds herself.

And so it falls to others to find ways to keep her name and her story in the public’s mind. It falls to others to devise creative ways of engaging new supporters. It falls to others to convince people that they should care about the defendant and that they should offer material support for a prisoner.

One of the important lessons that I’ve learned in my years of prisoner defense committee work is how isolating and lonely the criminal legal process is. This is particularly true for detainees who find themselves jailed while awaiting trial or a plea deal. It is difficult to make peace with the loss of your freedom when you haven’t been convicted. Letters and other communications are lifelines for those who find themselves in such a predicament. The knowledge that people on the outside care about you, haven’t forgotten about you, and support you is encouraging. Often it makes the difference between giving up and staying hopeful. That line is an excruciatingly thin one.”

I’ve been all in with Marissa and her case since late summer 2013. Ten days prior to her expected release, CAFMA spearheaded a 10 day fundraising campaign to ensure that she would not be burdened to pay for her own incarceration (through electronic monitoring). We estimated that it would cost $11,000 for two years of house arrest and thanks to generous supporters that goal was met in the first three days of the campaign. So yesterday, Marissa walked out of jail with at least one less financial worry. She is also no longer facing a mandatory minimum sentence of 20 years (for her initial conviction) or potentially 60 years (had she been convicted in a retrial). I suppose that I should take some solace in this. Unfortunately, I feel a conflicting set of emotions. On the one hand, I feel a seething, low grade rage and one the other, I am filled with gratitude and love.

I am angry that Marissa, a victim of domestic violence, has had to spend even one day in jail for defending herself. I am angry that Marissa, a mother of three, has spent years away from her children. I am angry at a spiteful and vindictive prosecutor who abused her discretion and pursued Marissa like Ahab. I am angry that Marissa is still shackled to the state for two more years and that she is expected to pay for her continued confinement. I am angry that while we successfully raised money for Marissa’s legal defense too many people (including black people) stayed quiet on the sideline. I am angry because of the Marissas of the past, the current Marissas and the future ones. I am angry because violence against women continues unabated. I am angry because too many black women’s lives DO NOT in fact matter. I am angry.

Alongside my justified anger, however, lies profound love and gratitude. I am grateful that Marissa wasn’t broken by her experience of injustice. I am grateful that she has a family and particularly a mother who has stood steadfastly by her side throughout this ordeal. I am grateful to Aleta, Sumayya, Helen and to my friend Alisa for taking the initiative to launch the Free Marissa Now mobilization campaign in 2012. The countless hours, days, weeks, months, and years that you labored are valued. I saw you. Thank you. I am grateful to my comrades and friends of the Chicago Alliance to Free Marissa Alexander (CAFMA), particularly Tasasha, Maya, Holly, Ash, Monica, Sean, Jessica, Sarah, Rachel, Jennifer, Olivia, Suey, Gail, Chez and most especially Ayanna. Your creativity, passion, and persistence are unmatched.

There are many more people in Chicago & across the country who contributed their talents, art, money and time to supporting Marissa and I am grateful to and for them all. Thank you Mychal, Vikki, Molly, Esther, William, Micah, Malcolm, Steve, Bianca, Kiese, DJ, Trudy, Christina, Lindsay, Brandon, Jamal, Nikki, Jasiri, Beth, Lauren, Emily, Jenn, Billy, Lewis, Noah, Allison, Vivi, Sage, Brandi, Kelly, Sam, Scheherazade, Mary, Lex, Zachary, Rachel, Shaun, Claudia, Dave, Andy, and many, many more. Some of the people who helped like Lauren suffered the negative consequences of state surveillance as a result; reminding us that doing this work takes a toll and is always risky. I am grateful to the ones who took the risk. I am grateful for our resistance and our endurance. I am grateful for the witness. I am grateful for our stubborn insistence to love each other even when the world is unloving toward us. I am grateful for beauty in the bricks.

Marissa is out of jail but she is still not free. I hope that supporters will continue to care about what happens from here on out. For my part, I am going to take a break from prisoner defense work. I am certain that it won’t be a long one. There are too many people locked up and too much injustice. But it’s important in this work to preserve one’s mind, body and spirit. It’s important to prevent burn out. So I’ll step away for a little while sure to be drawn back again by another travesty of injustice. I will keep an eye out for Marissa and I’ll be ready to support her in what comes next.

We welcome our sister home understanding that she’s still not free. Cognizant also that none of us is free while others are caged.

by Suey Park (2014)

by Suey Park (2014)

But Marissa did not die. For this, on this day, we rejoice. In the words of the great writer-poet Lucille Clifton: come celebrate/with me that everyday/something has tried to kill me/and has failed.

Marissa will need money as she gets on her feet. If you have a few dollars, please contribute to her restoration here.

Jan 25 2015

Chicago #TrainTakeOver For #BlackLivesMatter

If you read this blog with any regularity, then you will be unsurprised at young Chicagoans’ consistent and constant creativity in protests. Over the past few months, young people in Chicago have led several protests against state violence.

On Friday, some of these young people organized a #TrainTakeOver. Below is a terrific video by Kuumba Lynx documenting the action.

photo by Todd St. Hill (1/23/15)

photo by Todd St. Hill (1/23/15)

photo by Todd St. Hill (1/23/15)

photo by Todd St. Hill (1/23/15)

Jan 20 2015

Raise Your Voice For Reparations NOW…

Last Thursday, on Martin Luther King’s birthday, about 50 people gathered at City Hall to sing for reparations.

As the Chicago Sun Times editorial page called yesterday for Mayor Rahm Emanuel to compensate survivors of Jon Burge’s torture, it’s clear that pressure is building on the Mayor to get on the right side of history. I’ve written briefly about why I think reparations for police torture survivors are important:

For me, the reparations ordinance is a memorial for the living. The ordinance’s stubborn insistence that people (no matter what they have done) should be compensated for torture is a little earthquake. It shakes up and re-configures the normalization of punishment. To say that the state needs to formally apologize for harm done is important too.

I’ve been heartened to see the recent interest that young people in particular have taken in this issue. Many of the people who have been supporters of the Burge torture survivors are older by virtue of the prolonged nature of the struggle. I hope to see many more young people join organizing efforts around the reparations ordinance and more. The fight needs their creativity, ideas and energy. We also need older people to participate too. We need everyone to win.

So this is another call to action. Please join us as we press forward to pass the reparations ordinance for Chicago police torture survivors. Here’s how you can help:

1. THIS Wednesday January 21st at 10 am is the Chicago City Council meeting and we would love a roll call of supporters who could attend in solidarity with survivors of police torture.If you can attend, please email niapoetry@gmail.com by 5 pm today to let us know and for more information.

ChiCityCouncilmeme

2. Please contact the alderpeople who have yet to support the ordinance and demand that they support it. Call, tweet, email them. You can find all of their names and contact information HERE.

NEWAlderpeoplelistmeme

3. Call Mayor Rahm Emanuel at 312-744-3300 & do it every day. Demand that he offer his full support for the reparations ordinance and that he tell the City Council to hold a hearing on it and VOTE.

photo by Sarah Jane Rhee (City Hall, Sing-in for Reparations, 1/15/15)

photo by Sarah Jane Rhee (City Hall, Sing-in for Reparations, 1/15/15)

4. If your alderperson is a supporter of the ordinance, call them and thank them.

photo by Sarah Jane Rhee (1/15/15)

photo by Sarah Jane Rhee (1/15/15)

5. Follow the Chicago Torture – Justice Memorials on Facebook and Twitter to keep up with the latest news and for information about upcoming actions.

sophreparations

noahreparations

Jan 09 2015

Liberals Love Prisons #1000

I ordered Naomi Murakawa’s book “The First Civil Right: How Liberals Built Prison in America” last month. It’s sitting in a pile of other books on my living room floor. I would love to get to it by March. Willie Osterweil reviews the book in this week’s edition of the Nation Magazine. He writes:

“This is the fundamental thesis of Murakawa’s book: legal civil rights and the American carceral state are built on the same conceptions of race, the state and their relationship. As liberals believe that racism is first and foremost a question of individual bias, they imagine racism can be overcome by removing the discretion of (potentially racist) individuals within government through a set of well-crafted laws and rules. If obviously discriminatory laws can be struck down, and judges, statesmen or administrators aren’t allowed to give reign to their racism, then the system should achieve racially just outcomes. But even putting aside the fact that a removal of individual discretion is impossible, such a conception of “fairness” applies just as easily to producing sentencing minimums as school desegregation.”

Murakawa’s book and thesis are important because they focus on Liberals’ role in expanding the carceral state and in creating the epidemic of mass incarceration. Too often, the conversation has centered on the Republicans’ so-called focus on “law and order” as the chief driver of mass incarceration. But the truth is that Liberals love prisons too. They always have.

I saw this map using 2010 Census data to illustrate U.S. incarceration earlier this week. The map below includes both the prison and jail population.

incarceratedpop2010

What do you notice in looking at this map?

First, prisoners are everywhere across the country. Second look at rate of prisoners in California which is off the charts and connect this to Murakawa’s thesis. Finally, Christopher Ingraham shares this stunning fact in the Washington Post:

To put these figures in context, we have slightly more jails and prisons in the U.S. — 5,000 plus — than we do degree-granting colleges and universities. In many parts of America, particularly the South, there are more people living in prisons than on college campuses.

We need to complicate the story about who bears responsibility for the rise of the prison nation. I am glad for work like Murakawa’s and look forward to more scholarship in the future.

Jan 08 2015

Video: #BlackLivesMatter Chicago

I thought that I would be able to ease into the New Year. Hahaha jokes on me. I am busier than ever so I won’t be able to blog regularly for the next couple of weeks at least.

I am happy to say, however, that the work that I get to be part of feels promising. We’ll see.

In the meantime, my friend Kelly put together this wonderful short video documenting some of the #BlackLivesMatter actions in Chicago. It’s inspiring so I thought I’d share it with you. You can also read Kelly’s post about some of the Chicago-based protests and actions that inspired her in 2014 here.

Jan 06 2015

New Resource Available: Teaching About the PIC & Criminal Legal System

As classes have resumed this week for high school and some college students across the country, my organization, Project NIA, is making a new resource available to educators and organizers today.

My friend and long-time NIA volunteer Dr. Michelle VanNatta wrote and compiled an invaluable guide last year. “Teaching about the Prison Industrial Complex and Criminal Legal System: Exercises, Simulations, Resources, and Discussion Ideas” offers activities that can be adapted, shared, and transformed to meet the needs of different groups. These activities are offered as potential tools in the hopes they may be useful in sparking discussion and in the development of more curricula.

Anyone who is interested in the guide can complete a short survey below to receive the link to download a copy at no cost.

The guide is in no way meant to provide a comprehensive look at issues in the prison industrial complex or criminal legal system. This is not a systematically developed, integrated group of exercises intended to provide a thorough view and analysis of all the critical issues about the prison industrial complex that communities, students, and activists need to learn about. Rather, it’s a set of tools intended to be adapted and integrated into curricula, popular education, or training efforts by teachers, organizers, and community builders.

I want to thank Michelle for her generosity in creating this resource and making it freely available. I also thank my friend Jacqui Shine for lending her design talents.

Finally, while this guide is offered at no cost to those interested, it is not “free.” Lots of time and effort went into creating the resource. Project NIA is a small organization that relies heavily on individual donors to do our work. If you want to contribute to the work, you can mail a check to us here. In addition, you can read our 2014 year in review highlights here.

I hope that these resources are helpful in building knowledge about aspects of the PIC. Please feel free to share the link to the survey with others who might also like to download the guide. As a courtesy, we are asking that everyone first complete the survey before accessing the guide.

You can complete the survey below and then download the guide.

Create your free online surveys with SurveyMonkey , the world’s leading questionnaire tool.

Dec 31 2014

My 8 Favorite Posts of 2014

Everyone seems to make lists at the end of the year so I figure that I need to get on board. I’ll share my 8 favorite posts of the year. I don’t think that they are my 8 BEST posts just my favorites for many different reasons.

As we end 2014, I’d like to thank all of you who read and engage with this blog. I can’t believe that it’s been 4.5 years since I launched it. I have learned so much about blogging in that time. I still have more to learn. I hope to do better in 2015.

I’d like to wish you all a Happy New Year. May 2015 bring us all more justice and some peace.

In no particular order…

1. The Young and UnMoored

2. Free Marissa and All Black People

3. ‘Prison Chic’ and Ghosts

4. Applauding Black Death in the Hour of Chaos

5. ‘Mistaken Identity,’ The Violent Un-Gendering of Black Women, and the NYPD

6. The Man With The Cardboard Sign…

7. The Ghastly Ritual: Death, Pain, and Love

8. To Damo, With Our Love

Dec 23 2014

Video – Groundswell’s Brooklyn Mural Project: The Prison Industrial Complex

THIRTEEN documented one Groundswell mural from conception to execution — a piece entitled “P.I.C.T.U.R.E.S Prison Industrial Complex: Tyranny Undermining Rights, Education, and Society” in the Brownsville neighborhood of Brooklyn, that addresses the causes and effects of incarceration.

Since 1996, Groundswell has brought together artists, educators, activists and youth to create collaborative public artwork across New York City. Every mural has a central theme — meant to give expression to underrepresented ideas and perspectives, and to better the lives of both neighbors and artists alike.

Dec 21 2014

13 Things That We Re-Learned About the Prison Industrial Complex in 2014

Last year, I offered a year-end list of key developments in the PIC. People seemed to appreciate the recap so I produced a 2014 version. As was true last year, there are many developments that didn’t make the list including the report by the National Research Council that analyzed the exponential growth of U.S. incarceration, the announcement that New York City will end punitive solitary confinement for juveniles, the continued criminalization of motherhood (especially black mothers), the ongoing criminalization of LGBTQ people, multiple botched executions, the indictment of Christopher Epps, Mississippi’s corrections commissioner for corruption, and more.

We are STILL in the era of “mass” & “hyper” incarceration.

1. In 2014, we learned that state prison populations actually increased last year. In 2013, the prison population was 1,574,741, an increase of about 4,300 over the previous year, but below its high of 1,615,487 in 2009. This was the first increase in state prison population in four years. Read the full report here (PDF).

Source: The Sentencing Project (2014)

Source: The Sentencing Project (2014)

The prison population in New Hampshire grew faster than any other state. The state’s 8.2% increase topped second-place Nebraska’s 6.8% rise and far outstripped the 0.3% national increase in the number of prisoners. Below is a pie chart that breaks down the proportion of prisoners in state & federal facilities.

Source: Texas Observer, 9/17/14

Source: Texas Observer, 9/17/14

2. The prison AND jail population in the U.S. declined slightly in 2013.

The decrease can be mostly attributed to a decline in the number of people in jail. The number of people in local jails last year fell by almost 2 percent – to 731,200. The US is still the world’s largest jailer by a mile.

Source: The Marshall Project

Source: The Marshall Project

Police violence continues unabated… and to does the resistance.

3. This year will be remembered for the deaths of Tanisha Anderson, Mike Brown, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, and more.

It will also be remembered for the sustained resistance to police violence catalyzed by protests in Ferguson, Missouri.

photo by Sarah Jane Rhee (Chicago, 11/24/14)

photo by Sarah Jane Rhee (Chicago, 11/24/14)

4. A group of 8 young people of color from Chicago took their charge of genocide to the United Nations Committee Against Torture to internationalize the struggle against police violence.

We Charge Genocide at UNCAT

We Charge Genocide at UNCAT

Read more »

Dec 14 2014

Free Lookman, Kidnapped by Chicago Police…

Update: Thanks to everyone for reading and sharing this post. I have just returned from bond court and have some “good news” regarding Lookman and his case. His charges were dropped to two misdemeanors (battery and resisting arrest). The charges remain bogus and will be fought in court. Lookman will be represented by my friend Joey Mogul in his next court date. For now, we are told that he will be released later today on a $10,000 I-bond. The money raised so far will go towards the legal fees that will accrue. But for now, Lookman should be home later today. Thank God and thank all of you for your support.

On a related note, two other young people of color were arrested at yesterday’s protests. One was badly beaten by the cops and taken to the hospital before being returned to jail. They too were represented by Joey and Molly Armour of the National Lawyers Guild today. Unfortunately, they are still charged with felonies. They have a $150,000 bond between them so they will need $15,000 to be bailed out. Some of their supporters are currently working on an online fundraiser for this. I will share the link once I have it.

Update #2: Lookman is out of jail. However, two other young men remain locked up on felony aggravated battery charges on a police officer, a felony. One of those young men was badly beaten by the police and had to be taken to the hospital. They are without resources for bail. Here is their bail fund. Please help them get out of jail as soon as possible. Any amount helps and please share the link with others. Thanks.

It’s his smile that draws you in… Mischievous and precious because it isn’t bestowed to everyone. You have to earn it because his ‘unlucky’ life has offered little to smile about. To bask in that smile is a gift.

I was at a visioning and strategy session about how to end police violence yesterday when I heard that Lookman was arrested.

photo by Yolanda Perdomo (12/13/14)

photo by Yolanda Perdomo (12/13/14)

He was protesting police terror along of hundreds of other Chicagoans. As soon as I heard that he was snatched by CPD, my heart dropped. I knew that he was close, so damn close, to getting off probation for a nonviolent offense. I knew that nothing good would come of this. Nothing.

Sure enough, when I arrived at the police station last night, I heard that he was being charged with aggravated assault on a police officer, a felony. Witnesses who saw the entire episode unfold say that he did no such thing. These are trumped up charges. We will fight them starting today in bond court.

Lookman is a young black man living in Chicago. As such, he is a walking target. This takes its toll over the course of a young life. Along with the relentless police surveillance and harassment, Lookman was a victim of the school-to-prison pipeline. Listen as he shares his experience of getting into fights at school which eventually landed him behind bars at the young age of 15.

When Lookman talks about his time in the “Audy Home,” he means the Cook County Juvenile Temporary Detention Center (JTDC). Below is a photo of a cell at the juvenile jail. Lookman talks in the audio clip about looking out of the window in order to feel “human again,” you can see what that window looks like.

Cook County Juvenile Temporary Detention Center by Richard Ross (Juvenile-in-Justice)

Cook County Juvenile Temporary Detention Center by Richard Ross (Juvenile-in-Justice)

In Chicago, we lock black boys up to cage the rage but it doesn’t disappear, it only grows. To heal the walking wounded, we cling to anything that we can find. We beg them to talk, to express, to let go. We have almost no resources. The state is allocating those to the military and to build more cages. Some of them like Lookman channel their feelings in spoken word. “I’m tired,” he says.

Over the years, Lookman has grown as a person within a leadership development program that my organization incubated for many years called Circles and Ciphers. Lookman has traveled across Chicago leading peace circles in schools and other community spaces.

Lookman leading a peace circle last month (photo by Sarah Jane Rhee)

Lookman leading a peace circle last month (photo by Sarah Jane Rhee)

He spends most of his time these days looking for ways to bring more justice and some peace into this world. For this, he should be respected and uplifted. The Chicago Police department is hell bent on harassing, targeting and destroying him instead. We will not allow them to kidnap and disappear Lookman. He has a family and community that loves him. We want him back. He has work to do in the world. He has a life to live. We will not stand for this injustice. Please help us fight.

We need to raise money to bail Lookman out of jail. Click HERE to donate (this link will be updated with information after today’s bond hearing, we are just getting a head start). Thank you in advance for your support and help.