I saw this beautiful image by artist Molly Crabapple and it is seared in my mind and has imprinted itself on my heart. I have looked at it a lot this week. I think it’s because I recognize the women on the line. I’m sure that I’ve never met any of them in person but I have… It’s difficult to explain and I am feeling particularly inarticulate today. I will revisit the emotions and thoughts that the image has triggered at a later date. But for today, I just wanted to share this.
Warning: This post includes descriptions of extreme violence and brutality.
There have been a couple of stories in the recent news exposing the brutality of prisons in the United States. First, the on-going travesty at Tutwiler women’s prison in Alabama was revisited by the New York Times over the weekend:
For a female inmate, there are few places worse than the Julia Tutwiler Prison for Women.
Corrections officers have raped, beaten and harassed women inside the aging prison here for at least 18 years, according to an unfolding Justice Department investigation. More than a third of the employees have had sex with prisoners, which is sometimes the only currency for basics like toilet paper and tampons.
But Tutwiler, whose conditions are so bad that the federal government says they are most likely unconstitutional, is only one in a series of troubled prisons in a state system that has the second-highest number of inmates per capita in the nation.
I’ve highlighted the situation at Tutwiler here a couple of years ago. Are sexual violence and brutality new for women prisoners? Of course not! In fact, in the mid-19th century after visiting Auburn State Prison in New York, the prison chaplain, Reverend B.C. Smith, remarked on conditions there: “To be a male convict would be quite tolerable; but to be a female convict, for any protracted period, would be worse than death” (Rathbone, 2005).
Randall G. Shelden (2010) wrote about how women prisoners were treated in the 19th century:
“The conditions of the confinement of women were horrible — filthy, overcrowded, and at risk of sexual abuse from male guards. Rachel Welch became pregnant at Auburn while serving a punishment in a solitary cell; she died after childbirth as the result of a flogging by a prison official earlier in her pregnancy. Her death prompted New York officials to build the Mount Pleasant Prison Annex for women on the grounds of Sing Sing in Mount Pleasant, New York in 1839. The governor of New York had recommended separate facilities in 1828, but the legislature did not approve the measure because the washing, ironing, and sewing performed by the women saved the Auburn prison system money. A corrupt administration at the Indiana State Prison used the forced labor of female inmates to provide a prostitution service for male guards (p.134).”
The guard who beat Rachel Welch so brutally was named Ebenezer Cobb. He was convicted of assault and battery and fined $25. He was allowed to keep his job.
The second development in the past few days involves the MacArthur Justice Center at Northwestern Law School which brought a class action lawsuit against Cook County Jail alleging a “sadistic culture.” Conditions are described as “hellish.” As someone who has had to visit the Jail pretty regularly, I concur with this assessment. I have written about the fruitless struggle to reform Cook County Jail dating back to the 1870s. Still, today, detainees continue to be abused and harmed even after countless lawsuits and federal intervention.
“…the rule does not apply to city and county jails, like New York City’s Rikers Island, which houses hundreds of minors as young as 16. Although most of them have not been convicted, they still can be punished as adults for breaking jail rules. That often means weeks or months in solitary confinement.”
Some of you reading this might be surprised that any state would use such a practice at all. A couple of years ago, Human Rights Watch (HRW) published a wrenching report about the scope and impact(s) of solitary on children. Basically, they reaffirmed that the practice amounts to physical and psychological torture. HRW produced the video below to accompany the report.
Solitary confinement or what many prisoners call “the hole” can only accurately be considered torture. Charles Dickens recognized as much in the 19th century. Too often, however, the practice is either ignored or discussed euphemistically. America has ALWAYS been pro-torture of certain people. I offer as exhibit A the spectacle lynching of black people in the U.S. So we shouldn’t be surprised at the fact that we still torture so many people in prison through the use of solitary as well as other forms of physical, psychological, and emotional brutality. CIR produced an excellent animated video to illustrate how solitary confinement is experienced by children. I recommend that everyone watch it.
We should end solitary confinement in general as a practice in our prisons. We should abolish prisons.
I’ve written about Dollree Mapp here in the past. Today, I wanted to share more of her prison writing.
No Way Out [Source: Off Our Backs, February 1979]
On entering Bedford’s prison, she sought an interview with the Warden. After knocking lightly on the door which read”ADMINISTRATIVE OFFICE” — and answer, she cautiously turned the knob and the door opened to another door which read, “RIGHT” or “LEFT.” Believing in righteousness, she chose the door marked “RIGHT.” Through that door there were two other doors which read “WARDEN” or “ASSISTANT WARDEN.” Wanting to fully understand what she would be confronted with while in prison, she naturally chose the door marked “Warden.” Upon entering that door through dismay, she ran smack into two more doors which read “PUNITIVE” or “REHABILITATION.” Now, thoroughly confused, and stopping to distinguish between the two doors, she reluctantly chose the door marked “REHABILITATION” as she remembered the pompous judge telling her she needed to be rehabilitated.
WOW! she thought, “At last, I’ve made it, no more doors.” When she entered the “REHABILITATION” door, feeling that the Warden would let her know what her “RIGHTS” were, there were once again two more doors which read “BLACK” or “WHITE.” EUREKA! she shouted. Being Black, she hurried to the door marked “BLACK” thinking that all her questions would be answered and she would let the Warden know what she wanted. Upon entering the door marked “BLACK,” she fell thirteen stories to her DEATH!
by dollree mapp
“While their men were forced to return to the Pribilof Islands to harvest seals for the Government, the Aleut women remained at the Funter Bay Evacuation Camp. They petitioned for better conditions, which were so poor that disease and other causes resulted in a 10-percent death rate.”
Read the transcript of the petition here.
Yesterday was Audre Lorde’s 80th birthday. I didn’t plan to write anything about her work. I have nothing interesting to contribute. [You can stop reading here.] I came to Lorde in graduate school. Since then, I’ve read and re-read her essays and poetry countless times. Her work still feels slippery to me because she writes about life: its challenges, beauty and most of all its complexity. So my understanding changes as I grow older and experience more of life. I return to her in particular when I find myself losing hope. She has a way of making me feel less defeated by the vagaries of living. It’s not because her work provides me with “answers” but rather that she seems to be searching and uncertain too. She remains above all, profoundly human and so flawed like all of us. It’s comforting and she always makes me feel less alien and alone.
“I do not even know all their names.
My sisters deaths are not noteworthy
not threatening enough to decorate the evening news…”
In 1979, after twelve Black women were murdered in Boston over the course of just a few weeks, Audre Lorde was moved to write “Need: A Chorale For Black Woman Voices.” She explained:
“I wrote Need: A Chorale for Black Woman Voices because I felt I had to use the intensity of fury, frustration, and fear I was feeling to create something that could help alter the reasons for what I felt. Someone had to speak, beyond these events and this time, yet out of their terrible immediacy, to the repeated fact of the blood of Black women flowing through the streets of our communities — so often shed by our brothers, and so often without comment or note. Or worse, having that blood justified or explained away by those horrific effects of racism which we share as Black people.”
Unfortunately the assaults against Black women are unrelenting. Black women continue to be beaten, stalked, raped, imprisoned, disappeared, and murdered. We are still fighting for our lives. Marissa Alexander is one such black woman and this past Sunday, over 30 people gathered to make art in her name.
The idea for an art party was suggested by my friend Sarah Jane Rhee after we organized a dance party fundraiser for Marissa’s legal defense fund last December. I agreed to find a space to host the party and then I reached out to members of the Chicago Alliance to Free Marissa Alexander (which formed out of a teach-in I facilitated in September) to organize the event. So many people came through to support the effort; it’s heartening.
Early last year, I wasn’t feeling as hopeful. Instead, I found myself consumed by low-grade fury that Marissa Alexander was getting insufficient attention. I’ll admit that I was particularly angry at black men who organized for Trayvon Martin while passively sitting by as Marissa was railroaded by a racist, sexist, and heterosexist system. Then came #31forMarissa launched by Esther Armah and me. Suddenly, black men were contributing to lifting up Marissa’s struggle. I felt… relieved. The fury lessened. Maybe Black men wouldn’t take leadership in fighting for Black women’s lives but they would join the struggle if invited to participate. And this, for the moment, offered some solace and affirmation. It takes so little, really.
“I dream of your freedom
as my victory
and the victory of all dark women
who forgo the vanities of silence…”
Women activists responding to the murders of black women in Boston in 1979 marched in the streets in protest carrying a banner with a line from a poem by civil rights organizer Barbara Deming which read: “WE CANNOT LIVE WITHOUT OUR LIVES.” In the preface to Need, Lorde cites this as her “lasting image of that spring, beyond the sick sadness and anger and worry.”
On Sunday, I sat in circle with friends and new acquaintances laughing, crying, listening and sharing thoughts. We spoke our disappointments, our fears, and our hopes. We spoke Jordan Davis. We spoke Marissa. We spoke loss and love. Our speaking was resistance against the murders, the violent erasures, and the dehumanization of black people.
For many years, I focused primarily on banding with others to yell “NO.” I was saying no to the status quo, no to the way that the world currently is. This was an important form of protest. It saved my life in many ways. As I’ve grown older, I’ve become more interested in joining with others to build the world in which I want to live. That has meant embracing “YES.” Yes to practicing compassion, yes to learning forgiveness, yes to doing more listening, yes to simply being. Sitting in circle with others, creating art, sharing stories, these are an embrace of the “Yes” of movement-building. We must find new ways of living together. For me, circles are a good way to practice building trust and community. We desperately need each other if we are to live fully and we cannot live without our lives; Audre consistently reminds me of this.
It’s sad really, this ghastly ritual. Black people waiting for the courts to deliver some justice for our murdered children. Tick, tock, tick, tock. The jury deliberates. Tick, tock, tick, tock. We stand vigil demanding that the law affirm our humanity. Tick, tock, tick, tock. Anxiety rises. Words like unbelievable, depressing, angry, and scared proliferate. Tick, tock, tick, tock. If the hoped for conviction comes, what next? Another black child killed? Tick, tock, tick, tock. We hold our collective breath. Tick, tock, tick, tock. The verdict is read: betrayal, devastation, anger, tears, recriminations, quiet acceptance, rage, numbness, tuning out, silent prayer, unmitigated pain… We knew. We hoped for different. But we know…better.
What will we tell our children? The cry rises again. Perhaps this is a question without an answer asked by a person who doesn’t really want one. It’s a question to verbalize helplessness and to convey anguished love.
“This 1936 photograph—featuring eight of the nine Scottsboro Boys with NAACP representatives Juanita Jackson Mitchell, Laura Kellum, and Dr. Ernest W. Taggart—was taken inside the prison where the Scottsboro Boys were being held. Falsely accused of raping two white women aboard a freight train in 1931, the nine African American teenagers were tried in Scottsboro, Alabama, in what became a sensational case attracting national attention. Eight of the defendants were found guilty and sentenced to death; the trial of the ninth ended in a mistrial. These verdicts were widely condemned at the time. Before the young men eventually won their freedom, they would endure many years in prison and face numerous retrials and hearings. The ninth member of the group, Roy Wright, refused to pose for this portrait on account of his frustration with the slow pace of their legal battle. (Source: Smithsonian)”