Category: Mass incarceration

Mar 22 2015

This Week… Color of Violence 4

I am sorry that I have been unable to post here for most of this month. I am absolutely swamped with work. I have been giving presentations, organizing actions, facilitating workshops, writing reports and more.

This week brings the Color of Violence 4 gathering to Chicago. I am so excited and can’t wait to participate. You can find the schedule here. Registration is closed but if you are in town you can try to sign up onsite. No promises that you will actually be able to attend.

I am especially excited to be part of an exciting plenary on Thursday evening.

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Looking forward to seeing some of you at COV!

Mar 07 2015

Video: Restoring Justice

I had the great privilege to speak on a panel about the school to prison pipeline and restorative justice on Thursday. The panel was organized by the School Project to celebrate the premiere of a new short documentary produced by young filmmakers from Free Spirit Media.

You can watch the documentary below. It’s very good. Also, a couple of months ago, a group of restorative justice practitioners (including me) completed a short document laying out the principles of RJ. You download that HERE.

Feb 23 2015

Guest Post: Alternatives to Incarceration: Be Careful What You Wish For

I am grateful to Dr. Susan Sered for allowing me to re-publish this post from her blog. Dr. Sered is a well-respected sociologist and her latest book is titled “Can’t Catch a Break Gender, Jail, Drugs, and the Limits of Personal Responsibility.” The book is currently sitting in my TO READ pile and I can’t wait to get to it soon.

As awareness is growing of the financial and human costs associated with mass incarceration, we’re hearing talk from politicians on both sides of the aisle (and, believe it or not, even from the Koch Brothers) about the need for “alternatives to incarceration” (ATIs).

The term “alternatives to incarceration” takes for granted that we are talking about ways to handle criminals who otherwise would need to be incarcerated — that incarceration is a reasonable baseline against which to measure “alternatives.” In light of the over-representation of Americans of color and low-income Americans in jails and prisons, however, it’s necessary to be careful about any sort of presumption of correlation between criminality and incarceration. In fact, about a third of people locked up in the US are awaiting trial; that is, they have not been convicted of a crime. Another third are locked up because they violated the terms of probation or parole; that is; the “criminal” act was not sufficiently egregious to require imprisonment but a subsequent action – often simply not showing up for a meeting with a parole or probation officer, or failing to keep up restitution payments or money owed in court fees – was the reason for incarceration. And 97% of federal and state criminal prosecutions are resolved by plea bargain – often accepted by defendants out of fear that if they don’t accept the deal they will be locked up even longer — rather than by trial.

Given these numbers, it’s easier to make a case for abolition than for “alternatives to incarceration.” But that is not the direction in which public discourse seems to be moving. To the contrary, the increasingly popular sentiment goes something like this: A whole lot of people sitting in jails and prisons are mentally ill; they are drug users who need treatment more than they need punishment. Echoing this sentiment, Los Angeles County – the US county with the largest number of incarcerated people – recently approved a $1.9 billion proposal to tear down Men’s Central Jail and construct a 4,885-bed “Consolidated Correctional Treatment Facility”. And while “treatment” certainly sounds beneficial, the content of that treatment has yet to be spelled out.

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Over the past five years I followed a cohort of Massachusetts women who cycle in and out of prison as well as a variety of treatment programs. All of the women, at some point in their lives, have been diagnosed with a psychiatric disorder (most commonly substance abuse, bipolar disorder, PTSD). Overall, these twenty-six women spent far more time in treatment than in correctional settings. Yet, at the end of five years only three women had settled into reasonably secure housing, stable employment and long-term desistance from substance abuse.

Typically, treatment programs include some combination of pharmaceutical, twelve-step and psychotherapeutic components. Most of the women I have come to know are prescribed mind-boggling assortments of psychotropic medication, some of which make them, as Elizabeth (a white woman in her early forties, Elizabeth was homeless for a decade) used to say, into “a space shot” who shuffles around in a daze that puts her at elevated risk for being robbed or assaulted. Whether anti-anxiety, anti-depression or anti-psychotic drugs, these medications are not intended to cure the underlying problems such as sexual assault and homelessness that lead to anxiety, depression and substance abuse. Rather, psychotropic medications are prescribed in order to manage the individual’s response those problems.

While not all treatment programs prescribe psychotropic medication, virtually all incorporate – explicitly or implicitly — twelve step ideology and practices. Treatment facilities tend to be plastered with twelve step slogans such as “Let Go and Let God” and “Cultivate an attitude of gratitude,” and formal AA/NA meetings typically are part of the treatment regime. With emphasis on admitting one’s powerlessness (Step 1) and making moral inventories of one’s faults (Step 4), these programs do not seem to offer the women I have come to know a meaningful script for re-organizing their lives. When I visited Joy, who has been homeless for nearly fifteen years and nearly died as a consequence of a brutal sexual assault, several weeks into her stay in a treatment facility she enthusiastically explained to me that, “I’m learning that my problems are in my head.” Unfortunately, her problems also were in the real world: Less than a year later she was back on the streets where she was sexually accosted by a police officer who then arrested her for solicitation.

Most treatment programs in Massachusetts also include some sort of psychotherapy, and nearly all of the women I know have been treated by multiple therapists over the years, sometimes beginning in adolescence or even childhood. With its focus on the individual psyche, psychotherapy addresses personal flaws such as poor impulse control, allowing oneself to be a victim, and struggles to “get over” past traumas. But as Elizabeth explains, “I don’t need to talk about my problems. I need a place to live so that I won’t be scared all of the time.” This does not mean that therapy is useless; it does mean that “talk is cheap” without the material conditions that permit women like Elizabeth and Joy to build a secure life.

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There is little evidence pointing to long-term success for any particular drug treatment modality. Studies showing positive outcomes typically fail to track program participants for long enough time to establish meaningful rates of success, look only at participants who completed the program, fail to control for confounding variables, or look at very small numbers of participants from the start. The absence of evidence for the success of treatment programs is especially glaring when the treatment is coerced or carried out in a coercive situation. It may be tempting to believe that even if treatment doesn’t help everyone, at least it doesn’t hurt. Yet, as we’ve learned from the past — from efforts to“cure” homosexuality to the tranquilizers (“mother’s little helper“) of the 1960s,  when a patient’s ideas or behaviors challenge social hierarchies of race, gender, sexual orientation or class, treatment that is ostensibly for the patient’s own good may be used to bring the “deviant” individual back into line. As those of us old enough to remember Jack Nicholson’s performance in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest can attest, therapeutic interventions aimed at “getting inside” the patient’s head can carry heavy costs indeed.

The murky line between punishment and treatment has not been lost on some of the corporations involved in the prison industry. Correctional Healthcare Companies, for example, has expanded beyond providing medical services to prisons and now offers services for the “full spectrum” of “offenders” lives: “pre-custody, in custody, and post-custody,” a timeline that perhaps says more than the company intended about American understandings of criminality.

Feb 16 2015

Image of the Day

“Beautiful contribution from sandra-nadine for #BlackLivesMatter’s #VisionsOfABlackFuture during this year’s #BlackFutureMonth. We say abolish the prison industrial complex yesterday! End mass incarceration! Liberation now!”

image by Sandra N. Khalifa (2015)

image by Sandra N. Khalifa (2015)

Feb 15 2015

‘We Must Love Each Other:’ Lessons in Struggle and Justice from Chicago

The national protests catalyzed by the killing of Mike Brown in Ferguson last August continue even as many (including the mainstream media) have moved on. Some critics have suggested that the uprisings/rebellions are leaderless, lack concrete demands and/or are without clear strategy. Each of these critiques is easily refuted so I won’t concern myself with them here.

In Chicago, many have used the energy and opening created by these ongoing protests to re-animate existing long-term anti-police violence campaigns. On Saturday afternoon, hundreds of people gathered at the Chicago Temple to show our love for police torture survivors on the day after Jon Burge was released from house arrest.

photo by Sarah Jane Rhee (2/14/15 @ Chicago Temple)

photo by Sarah Jane Rhee (2/14/15 @ Chicago Temple)

The gathering was billed as a people’s hearing and rally in support of a reparations ordinance currently stalled in the Chicago City Council. Politicians, faith leaders, and community activists spoke at the event. Poets exhorted the crowd. But the most impactful, poignant and powerful words came from the Burge torture survivors themselves.

Burge Torture Survivor Darrell Cannon (photo by Sarah Jane Rhee, 2/14/15)

Burge Torture Survivor Darrell Cannon (photo by Sarah Jane Rhee, 2/14/15)

Read more »

Feb 03 2015

Talking to Kids About Incarceration…

A month ago, I posted about my friend Bianca Diaz’s new children’s book “The Princess Who Went Quiet.”

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Along with several other people (from Moms United Against Violence and Incarceration and CLAIM), I co-organized an event last Tuesday to share Bianca’s book and to hear from formerly incarcerated mothers.

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It was a moving and beautiful event. The women who bravely shared their stories with us were honest and reflective. They discussed the impact(s) of their incarceration on their children. They talked about the hopes they had and have for their children. They shared their mistakes and their triumphs. Many of us shed tears along with the women. These were tears of rage, pain, grief and love.

I was technically the moderator of the panel but I had nothing to do. I just invited each woman to speak, to share her story. I wasn’t needed; they were more than enough. As we closed out the event, I spoke briefly to the importance of telling children that they are not at fault for their loved one’s incarceration. I said these children also needed reassurance that even though their loved one was away, they were thinking of them and would always love them. These are lessons that I have learned in working with young people over the years. They are simple but essential.

One of my favorite things about Bianca’s book is that it’s a story of a young girl coming to voice. So many children with incarcerated loved ones need help to articulate their feelings, fears and questions about what’s happened. That’s really the bottom line. Unfortunately, too often they are confronted with judgement and shame. This needs to change. The women who spoke last Tuesday helped to catalyze a conversation that I hope will spread throughout our city.

Bianca generously made her book available to view and download through issu:

Many people, however, have been in touch to say that they can’t figure out how to download the book through issu. To that end, I am making a PDF copy of the book available for downloading. I would encourage everyone to first read Bianca’s reflections about talking to children about the PIC and also listening to formerly incarcerated mothers narrate their own stories. She was inspired to write the book based these experiences.

Finally, Bianca created the book with the intention that it be shared with children who have incarcerated loved ones. This means that those who download the book have a responsibility to share it with that group of children. I hope that you will do so and that you will find a way to let the children know that they are loved and cherished.

Jan 30 2015

New Resource: The Knotted Line Curriculum

I just received a free hard copy of a new curriculum guide co-created by Evan Bissell based on the terrific online resource “The Knotted Line.” It’s terrific.

The Torture of Mothers by Elizabeth Catlett (1970)

The Torture of Mothers by Elizabeth Catlett (1970)

The Knotted Line Curriculum looks to support critical analysis of the dynamics that justify the PIC and the shifting line of free/unfree by creating opportunities for inquiry into “the infinity of historical traces” that have led to the present. The research projects in this curriculum connect current and past systems of oppression, and movements of self-determination through creative mediums and outcomes.

For example, inspired by Octavia Butler’s novel Kindred, the Historical Fiction Time Travel project develops a series of letters between different time periods that share context, challenges and strategies in their respective times. Additionally, nine workshops engage critical analysis and research skills in exploring concepts of power, media, and freedom. These workshops are designed for use individually, integrated in unit plans or as part of the Knotted Line projects.

All of the materials are also available online, but if you would like a full-color print version of the curriculum, please fill out this form. If you are part of an institution that would like copies, donations help extend the distribution of free copies. So please consider a donation if you can afford it.

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 insure that she would not be burdened with paying 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.

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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.

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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.

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