Category: Prison

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 23 2015

118 Claps: Struggling For Reparations in Chicago

1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8… 118

It took a while. We clapped 118 times while our comrades died in at City Hall.

photo by Ayanna Banks-Harris (1/21/15)

photo by Ayanna Banks-Harris (1/21/15)

One clap to represent every documented case of torture by Jon Burge and his fellow Chicago Police Department (CPD) officers. On Wednesday, we were over 40 people clapping together, raising our voices together in support of a reparations ordinance for police torture survivors.

It’s been 42 years since Burge began torturing African American people at Area 2 police headquarters. It’s past time that the survivors of this violence are compensated for the harm. So on Wednesday an intergenerational, multi-everything group of Chicagoans went to City Hall to demand that Mayor Emanuel and our alderpeople set a hearing and vote on reparations now.

“What do we want from Rahm? Reparations now!”

We came to City Hall in solidarity with those whose will was broken and whose bodies still need repair. We came to remind those in power that we have not and will not forget. We came for more justice and some peace for the still caged and the living. Until then, we vowed “No Justice, No Peace.”

Two hours after we arrived, one of the chief sponsors of the ordinance, Alderman Brookins finally rose to say that it deserved a hearing. He then turned to those of us sitting in the gallery to introduce us. We stood and clapped again this time as an exhortation rather than in protest.

photo by Tom Callahan (1/21/15)

photo by Tom Callahan (1/21/15)

It feels urgent to me that we win this struggle. The men who survived Burge’s torture are getting on in age. The sense that the clock is ticking is palpable to me. Burge will be officially released from his half-way house on February 14, Valentine’s Day, after having spent 4 years in prison. He has offered no apology, shown no remorse and will get to keep his police pension. The Mayor has a chance to show some heart before February 14th by giving his full support for the reparations ordinance and urging the City Council for a hearing then a vote. Until then, we will continue to fight and demand reparations now.

photo by Page May (12/16/14)

photo by Page May (12/16/14)

Please add your voices. We have a simple way for you to reach out to the alderpeople who have yet to support the reparations ordinance HERE.

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 31 2014

Sights and Sounds of Chicago’s Struggle for Reparations…

Over the past couple of weeks, Chicagoans have intensified their calls for the City Council and Mayor Emanuel to pass a reparations ordinance for police torture survivors. The struggle for justice for Chicago’s survivors of police torture has spanned several decades.

On December 16 and December 29th, several organizations and individuals organized actions and marches to increase the pressure on elected officials to pass the ordinance. Below are some photos and video from both actions. You can support this organizing by contacting holdout alderpeople and demanding that they support the ordinance. Details for how to help are here.

December 16Holiday March and Action to Pass Reparations for Chicago Police Torture Survivors

Professor Adam Green, a member of the Chicago Torture Justice Memorials, opened the march with a few words setting the context of the struggle.

photo by Page May (12/16/14)

photo by Page May (12/16/14)

photo by Page May (12/16/14)

photo by Page May (12/16/14)

photo by Page May (12/16/14)

photo by Page May (12/16/14)

Read more »

Dec 30 2014

“The Princess Who Went Quiet:” A Fable

For the past couple of years, I have had the pleasure and privilege to work with and to get to know a talented young Chicago artist named Bianca Diaz. Bianca spent a summer (a couple of years ago) as an intern with my organization and has stayed on as a volunteer since that time. Over the past couple of years, I have watched Bianca learn about the ravages of the prison industrial complex along with the possibilities for transformative justice. She has listened attentively to the stories of people who been incarcerated and their families. She has used her artistic talents to further the struggle for justice and to promote an end of prisons.

Bianca is currently studying art in Ireland. While there, she completed a beautiful children’s book titled “The Princess Who Went Quiet.” It’s a story informed by Bianca’s thinking about incarceration and peace. Hard copies of the book will be distributed to children who have a loved one incarcerated at Cook County Jail through a grant by 96 Acres.

Bianca has generously made the story available to others who want to read it by posting it online too. Here in her own words Bianca shares her inspiration:

“I’m happy to share that my comic is now online for your reading and downloading pleasure! Please feel free to print and share this with anyone.
This comic was inspired by the stories that many people have shared with me about how incarceration has impacted their own lives, the lives of their family members, and the life of their communities. Thank you so much for letting me listen.”

by Bianca Diaz (2014)

by Bianca Diaz (2014)

Below is Bianca’s description of the story. I could not be more proud and blessed to know and work with such an incredibly kind, creative and talented person as Bianca. Stay tuned for an upcoming collaboration between us in the new year!

“There once lived a storytelling princess who was loved by her entire kingdom. When the princess was stolen away by a dragon everyone searched desperately for her, but they never found her. Alone in the belly of the dragon and with no one to tell stories to, the princess fell into a deep sleep.

In the kingdom of her dreams, the princess rules with fairness and love. She introduces peace circles to help her community find peace together. Having heard of the princess’s many great deeds and her ability to grow peace, King Capybara seeks her help when the capybara way of life is threatened, and capybara are disappearing. The princess travels to a far away land with the capybara and discovers what is making them disappear.

To save them, she must re-learn how to use her voice and speak. To save herself, she must open her eyes, and unite her dream world with her waking reality.”