Category: Mental Health

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 by 5 pm today to let us know and for more information.


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.


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.



Mar 25 2014

“If You Take Our Clinics, We Will Die…”

Last month, Sheriff Tom Dart who oversees the Cook County Jail tweeted the following:

Earlier this month, he (or his office) tweeted:

Both of these tweets illustrate the fact that jails have become warehouses for the mentally ill.

To dramatize this reality while advocating for the reinstatement of community-based mental health clinics, members of the Chicago Mental Heath Movement organized a vigil at Cook County Jail yesterday. In 2012, Rahm Emanuel closed 6 of 12 Chicago public mental health clinics. The Mental Health Movement fought valiantly to prevent those closures and has been fighting ever since to re-open them.

My friend Sarah Jane Rhee documented the vigil and below are some of her photographs.

photo by Sarah Jane Rhee (3/24/14)

photo by Sarah Jane Rhee (3/24/14)

photo by Sarah Jane Rhee (3/24/14)

photo by Sarah Jane Rhee (3/24/14)

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Mar 23 2014

Action Needed: Mental Health Vigil at Cook County Jail

My friends at Southside Together Organizing for Power continue their tireless work through the Mental Health Movement Campaign. I can’t attend on Monday but I hope that many others will join with them at this vigil.


On a related note, I encourage everyone to read this post by Melanie Newport that raises what I think are some critical questions about how we center the mentally ill while advocating for jail reform. Also, I’ve written many times about the criminality & immorality of warehousing mentally ill people in jails and prisons.

Mar 25 2013

Radio Stories About Prisons…

I love radio. In fact, I prefer listening to the radio than watching television. Over the years some of the best reporting about the prison industrial complex has taken place in radio. Below is a list of some excellent radio stories about prisons that I wanted to share:

Jailing the Mentally Ill
Produced by American RadioWorks.

According to the 1880 United States Census, 99% of the nation’s “insane persons” lived at home or in asylums. Only a few hundred were in jail. That was the practice in the U.S. for the next century: Mentally ill people who couldn’t cope on their own were confined in institutions. Most never had the chance to live freely in society—or to get in trouble there.

That has changed. Last year the U.S. Justice Department said 280,000 people with serious mental illnesses were in jail or prison—more than four times the number in state mental hospitals. American RadioWorks explores why.

Prison Diaries

Prison Diaries takes place inside two correctional facilities: Polk Youth Institution in Butner, NC and the Rhode Island Training School (for juveniles) in Cranston, RI. More than 245 hours of raw tape have been edited into five half-hour documentaries, produced by Joe Richman and Wendy Dorr of Radio Diaries.

Tossing Away the Keys
Recorded in Angola, Louisianna.
Premiered April 29, 1990, on Weekend All Things Considered.

The Louisiana State Penitentiary, Angola Prison, is a sprawling old plantation on the Mississippi River. It was named, long ago, for the birthplace of the slaves who were brought here to work the land.

Now, Angola holds more than five-thousand prisoners, mostly African Americans. It still has the look of another time: long straight lines of black men march to work along the levees with shovels over their shoulders. They are trailed by guards on horseback, shotguns resting in their laps.

It used to be that a life sentence in Louisiana meant a maximum of ten years and six months behind bars. But, in the 1970s, the state’s politicians changed the definition. A life sentence in Louisiana now means just that. Unless they’re pardoned by the Governor, inmates today know they will never again see the outside world — that they will die inside Angola prison. Tossing Away the Keys is their story.

Witness to an Execution
Producer: David Isay with Wilbert Rideau and Ron Wikberg / Mix engineer: Anna Maria deFrietas / Photograph by Harvey Wang.
Premiered October 20, 2000, on All Things Considered.

Witness to an Execution tells the stories of the men and women involved with the execution of deathrow inmates at the Walls Unit in Huntsville, Texas. Narrated by Warden Jim Willett, who oversees all Texas executions, Witness to an Execution documents, in minute-by-minute detail, the process of carrying out an execution by lethal injection. Most of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice employees interviewed have witnessed over one hundred inmates be put to death. One-third of all executions in the US have taken place in Texas, since the death penalty was reinstated in 1977.

The voices in Witness to an Execution tell a rare story. Major Kenneth Dean, a member of the “tie-down” team, describes the act of walking an inmate from his cell to the death chamber. Jim Brazzil, a death house chaplain who has witnessed 114 executions, remembers inmates’ last words to him. Former corrections officer Fred Allen discusses his own mental breakdown, caused, he says, by participating in one too many executions.

Witness to an Execution won a Peabody Award in 2000.

Producers: Stacy Abramson and David Isay / Production Assistant: David Miller / Narrator: Jim Willett / Editor: Gary Covino / Supervising engineer: Caryl Wheeler / Music: Bob Mellman / Music Coordinator: Henry Sapoznik / Executive Producer for All Things Considered: Ellen Weiss / Special thanks to: Larry Fitzgerald, and the Texas Department of Criminal Justice / Photography: Andrew Lichtenstein/Open Society Institute. / Funding provided by the Rockefeller Foundation, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the Open Society Institute.

Feb 16 2013


View more videos at:

Feb 07 2013

Scaring Black Children: Night Riders, the New York Times & Trips to Hospital Emergency Rooms…

I couldn’t sleep last night…

The New York Times published an article yesterday that profoundly disturbed me. I haven’t been able to shake it. Even though I’m an insomniac, thinking about it kept me up so I decided to write about it here. The article opens:

In a darkened classroom, 15 eighth graders gasped as a photograph appeared on the screen in front of them. It showed a dead man whose jaw had been destroyed by a shotgun blast, leaving the lower half of his face a shapeless, bloody mess.

Next came a picture of the bullet-perforated legs of someone who had been shot with an AK-47 assault rifle, and then one of the bloated abdomen of a gunshot victim with internal injuries so grievous that the patient had to be fitted with a colostomy bag to replace intestines that can no longer function normally.

Temple University hospital in Philadelphia is sponsoring a program called “Cradle to Grave.” Again, I turn to the Times for a description of the program:

The unusual program, called Cradle to Grave, brings in youths from across Philadelphia in the hope that an unflinching look at the effects that guns have in their community will deter young people from reaching for a gun to settle personal scores, and will help them recognize that gun violence is not the glamorous business sometimes depicted in television shows and rap music.

The program is open to all schools in the city, but about two-thirds of the participants were referred by officials from the juvenile justice system. Children younger than 13 are not normally admitted. So far, about 7,000 teenagers have participated since it began in 2006, and despite the graphic content, no parent has ever complained, said Scott P. Charles, the hospital’s trauma outreach coordinator.

This program sounds like another offshoot of the “ Scared Straight” programs from the late 80s and 90s that used to take black and brown children to visit prisons to show them how “terrible” they were in order to “prevent” them from ending up behind bars. Besides the fact that “Scared Straight” programs have proven to be completely ineffective and even counterproductive, they are also profoundly cruel.

I often say that our society hates black & brown children. I am always accused of generalizing or of hyperbole. But I can point to a pile of evidence that I am in fact right. I think that people who protest at this characterization are focused on whether individuals are mean to other individuals. They look at themselves and think I don’t have any personal animus towards individual black & brown children. That’s fine. What I see, however, is a set of policies and programs that harm children of color consistently and disproportionately. I count this Temple University Cradle to Grave program as more evidence of how much we despise black and brown youth in this country (especially if they are poor).

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Jan 21 2013

Fear of the Big, Bad Wolf: Addressing Street/Public Harassment With Girls #1…

Sometimes walking down the STREET
Feels like an OBSTACLE COURSE.
We are constantly trying to avoid DANGER.
It’s like Lil’ Red Riding Hood
Who was sent into the WOODS
To take food to her sick old grandma and
Was attacked instead by the BIG BAD WOLF.
For us,
the STREETS sometimes seem filled with

by Rogers Park Young Women’s Action Team in Shout Out: Women of color respond to violence (2007)

I’ve spent many years working with young women of color. One of the most formative experiences I’ve had were the nine years that I spent supporting an incredible group of girls & young women who called themselves the Rogers Park Young Women’s Action Team (YWAT). I have written about YWAT sporadically over the years on this blog. I haven’t however written about my experiences in any depth. I have also never before shared my very personal and specific reasons for engaging in anti-violence work with girls & young women in my community. For me, it began with street harassment and over the next few weeks, I will share some reflections about addressing this issue with young women of color. Finally, I hope to explore how my years with YWAT shaped my anti-criminalization ideas for addressing social problems.

To begin, it’s important to settle on a definition of street or public harassment. For this, I rely on Carol Gardner (1995) who defines public harassment as including “pinching, slapping, hitting, shouted remarks, vulgarity, insults, sly innuendo, ogling, and stalking (p.4).” She adds that “public harassment is on a continuum of possible events, beginning when customary civility among strangers is abrogated and ending with the transition to violent crime: assault, rape, or murder (p.4).”

There is probably no woman in the world who hasn’t experienced street/public harassment in her lifetime. My interest in this issue is longstanding and personal. I was raised in New York City – the daughter of West African return migrants. I grew up in the “city that never sleeps” and learned from an early age that there were dangers “lurking” around most corners. I don’t remember my parents ever telling me to be afraid. I don’t remember being sat down and told that I should be careful. However, I did have a curfew and I noticed that my father never seemed to be asleep when I would get home from being out at night. He never admitted that he was waiting up for me.

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Dec 21 2012

Doing Time During the Holidays…

It’s that time of year again. I am writing cards for several prisoners. I’ve shared my feelings about the holidays & prisoners here before…

One of my former students spent several years locked up. I used to write him regularly and by his 5th year in prison, mine were the only letters that he received. He told me that they became his lifeline. He told me the letters helped him remember that he was still “human.” When he shared those words with me, I felt a huge weight land on my shoulders. For a few weeks, I was paralyzed and unable to write more letters. I don’t know what was wrong with me but I just got scared. Thankfully, I snapped out of my funk. Writing is such a small thing. It was something that I could easily afford to do. I felt relieved to have moved past the paralysis.

Below is an image of a cell at the Cook County Juvenile Temporary Detention Center (JTDC). It is a photograph by Richard Ross for his seering Juvenile-In-Justice project. I have and do spend a lot of time at the JTDC. My organization incubates a project called Girl Talk there. I have been in those cells. I know the young people who are locked up there. I hate to think of them there at all (and especially during this time of year). Christopher spent time locked up at JTDC when he was 13 years old. You can hear him talk about his experience here (note: when he references the “Audy Home” he means the JTDC).

by Richard Ross (for Juvenile-In-Justice)

by Richard Ross (for Juvenile-In-Justice)

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Oct 29 2012

“Kasserian Ingera or How Are the Children?”

The Masai warriors usually greet each other with “Kasserian Ingera” or “How are the children?” The traditional answer is “All the children are well.” I really like this greeting because it clearly underscores the priority that this culture puts on the well-being of its most vulnerable members.

I was thinking about this when I read the recent Human Rights Watch report “Growing Up Locked Down: Youth in Solitary Confinement in Jails and Prisons Across the United States.” The Huffington Post published an article describing the findings of the report:

The report is based on interviews and correspondence with more than 125 young people in 19 states who spent time in solitary confinement while under age 18, as well as with jail and/or prison officials in 10 states.

Human Rights Watch and the ACLU estimate that in 2011, more than 95,000 young people under age 18 were held in prisons and jails. A significant number of these facilities use solitary confinement – for days, weeks, months, or even years – to punish, protect, house, or treat some of the young people held there.

Because young people are still developing, traumatic experiences like solitary confinement may have a profound effect on their chance to rehabilitate and grow, the groups found. Solitary confinement can exacerbate short- and long-term mental health problems or make it more likely that such problems will develop. Young people in solitary confinement are routinely denied access to treatment, services, and programming required to meet their medical, psychological, developmental, social, and rehabilitative needs.

Below is a video with interviews of youth who experienced solitary confinement:

It would serve us all well in the U.S. if we began to greet each other with “Kasserian Ingera.” Perhaps this would be a reminder to us not to torture our children…

Jun 20 2012

The Mental Torture of Incarceration…

photo by Sam Love – Protesting to Close TAMMS

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

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

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

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