Category: Prison

Oct 21 2014

Musical Interlude: Prison Bound

I was introduced to this song by my Goddaughter who is a fan of this band.

Oct 18 2014

Guest Post: ‘Not Made for TV:’ Ferguson Reflections by Kelly Hayes

Continuing the series of reflections by local Chicago organizers who traveled to St. Louis and Ferguson last weekend is my comrade Kelly Hayes. I am so happy to feature Kelly’s words and photos today.

It’s been about three days since I returned from Ferguson October, and my body and mind are finally starting to settle back into the life I know. A number of people have asked me about what I saw and experienced there, and I’ve generally responded with simplistic, vague statements like, “It was intense.” I’ve done this partly because I haven’t fully processed all that I saw and heard out there, and partly because I know that as soon as I start to speak, I’ll be walking a fine line between bearing witness and co-opting someone else’s narrative and struggle. Because while I am a person of color, I am not black, and I do not live in a community where my life has been deemed utterly disposable. Were my partner and I to have children, I would not spend my days wondering if some police officer would imagine their cellphone was a weapon, or simply gun them down out of a blind contempt for all things black.

This disposability of blackness is not my daily reality, so I know I must take care in how I explain what I saw and experienced on those streets, amongst those brave people.

photo by Kelly Hayes

photo by Kelly Hayes

I arrived in St. Louis on Saturday. The atmosphere was much as I expected it to be, with props and banners and high spirits. There were smiles. There was laughter. There was spectacle. I was glad I walked with those people, some of whom traveled great distances just to participate in that march, before hopping back on their buses for the long trip home. I was glad I was there, but even as we marched, I thought, “This is the gentle part.” And it was.

photo by Kelly Hayes

photo by Kelly Hayes

Mike Brown means, we’ve got to fight back!

That night, I arrived at the scene of Mike Brown’s murder around 7:00pm. A small crowd had formed. I took photographs and talked to a few people. The scene was calm. Then, out of the relative quiet, I heard chanting, as hundreds marched up the street to the memorial. At that point, the scene became infused with an energy I can hardly describe. Despite my exhaustion and my bad back, I could only feel what was being expressed all around me: uncertainty, heartbreak, rage, and an aching need for some kind of justice. But there was something else in the air. Ferocity. These young people meant it when they chanted, “We’re young! We’re strong! We’re marching all night long!”

The crowd moved fast, and I’m not actually as young and strong as I used to be, but I had no trouble keeping up that night. The energy of the march pulled me away from myself. All I could think was, “Take pictures, tweet, get this out there.” It seemed like the one thing that I could do that was of any real value. I could bear witness, and try to show people, in real time, just how powerful these moments were.

And they were powerful.

Read more »

Oct 16 2014

Guest Post: From St. Louis, On Peace & Protest by Page May

This post is by Page May who is an organizer with We Charge Genocide and will be part of the youth delegation traveling to Geneva in November 2014. I am so happy to be able to feature Page’s brilliant voice here.

I am still processing my thoughts on the brief time I spent in St. Louis. I was deeply moved by the energy, love, and intensity of the protestors, particularly the many young people leading the march.

photo by Page May (St. Louis, 10/11/14)

photo by Page May (St. Louis, 10/11/14)

After the rally, a White Missourian approached me asking what I thought. We shared enthusiasm for the day’s events but our conversation ended when she said she “only hopes it stays peaceful…that some people have broken windows and started looting…which ruins it for everyone and takes away from the whole thing.” When I returned to Chicago, I tried to stay updated by following #FergusonOctober. I found myself similarly frustrated by the pattern of outrage over the police using such excessive force on “peaceful protestors.”

There is nothing peaceful about having to fight for your people’s lives and nothing surprising about police violence against Black people. This White, liberal, insistence on “peaceful protest” and what qualifies as such is at best misunderstanding and at worst inherently antagonistic to Black struggle.

photo by Page May (St. Louis, 10/11/14)

photo by Page May (St. Louis, 10/11/14)

While processing my thoughts on this, I’ve found myself referring to one of my favorite poems, by Ethan Viets-VanLear- a co-organizer in We Charge Genocide and fellow UN delegate.

And the police of the block that got a vendetta on every Black boy child;
The perpetrators of this fabricated peace we’ve apparently disturbed!
I was born on the gutter
handcuffed on the curb.
I was born in a dungeon,
medicated and shackled,
smothered so I couldn’t speak.

I find so much wisdom here in Ethan’s words. His recognition that what- as well as who/when/where/how- is defined and understood as “peace” is a fabrication that normalizes an anti-black status-quo. Moreover, that the construction of “the peace” is not only exclusionary of Black people, but positioned in fixed opposition to us: We are implicitly (as Black people who exist) and explicitly (as Black people who resist) in disturbance of “the peace.” And as those enlisted to serve and protect “the peace,” the police have always been tasked with keeping Black people in our place- as slaves, criminals, deviants, and dangerous. The police are, as Ethan describes, “the perpetrators of this fabricated peace we’ve apparently disturbed.” They have always been at war with us. Our history in this country is one of captivity and genocide- dungeons and shackles.

photo by Sarah Jane Rhee (St. Louis, 10/11/14)

photo by Sarah Jane Rhee (St. Louis, 10/11/14)

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Oct 13 2014

Guest Post: Visiting Sammy by Liz Alexander

Southern trees bear strange fruit,
Blood on the leaves and blood at the root,
Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze,
Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees.

-Billie Holiday

I approach my first check point before entering the prison. I present my license and inform the guardsmen that I am visiting from out of town. I park my car and join the long line of predominantly Black and Brown women and their children. I recognize familiar faces from the last couple of times I’ve been here and we greet each other with ours eyes and a smile. As I approach the window, I take his inmate number out, ready to recite it on command in order to avoid frustrating the officer behind the glass. Unlike the other women, I have not memorized it yet. In fact, I refuse to do so. Even after eight years. I have made a commitment to maintain his humanity, regardless of the circumstances.

… “ After 18 hours of deliberations, a jury convicted Sammy Cooper, 21, of aggravated manslaughter in the death of 27-year-old Mike Rhodes, of East Orange, and using a steering-wheel lock to strike 14 blows to his head and face. Cooper, who faces 10 to 30 years in state prison, was also convicted of unlawful possession of a weapon late Tuesday in Newark Superior Court….Essex County Assistant Prosecutor Frederick Elflein said a taped police confession the day of the March 17, 2007, incident provided strong enough evidence to make this a clear-cut case. “The jury paid very close attention,” he said. “Even though in the confession (Cooper) said it was an accident and didn’t intend to kill (Rhodes), it was pretty chilling.”

On Wednesday, February 4, 2009 at 7:25pm, The New Jersey Star Ledger published an article, “East Orange man guilty of killing man with steering-wheel lock.” What the article failed to mention is that Sammy Cooper was abandoned by his father after his parents’ divorced when he was six years old; when he was twelve he was falsely incarcerated for a crime he did not commit and was bullied and harassed by the arresting officers. He was later acquitted. What the article failed to mention was that when he was fifteen, his mother died unexpectedly and he, the only one out of his siblings became a ward of the state. What the article failed to mention was that he had a mental illness and up until this incident, he himself was a victim. Is still a victim. No, this does not justify his actions or excuse him from accountability however what I find to be “pretty chilling,” is the lack of space for the acknowledgement of these other truths; the lack of space to be humanized.

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Oct 12 2014

The U.S. Tortures Children…

wrapsystem

“The Yell County Juvenile Detention Center uses this restraint mechanism called the “wrap system”. Some juvenile detainees call it “torture”. Now, the Arkansas Department of Human Services has sent a cease and desist letter to Yell County officials asking them to stop using the device.”(Source: Fox 16 News)

Oct 06 2014

Domestic Violence, Poetry and ‘Giving Name to the Nameless’

First, I love poetry and Nikky Finney is one of my favorite poets. So I was over the moon a few weeks ago when I read her new poem dedicated to Marissa Alexander titled “Flare.” October is domestic violence awareness month and we very much want to keep Marissa in mind. A couple of weeks ago, I emailed Ms. Finney and asked if she would participate in the Chicago Alliance to Free Marissa Alexander’s campaign which is asking people to send video submissions of them reading the poem “Flare” or another poem of their choice. So far, we have received wonderful submissions which you can find here. I asked Ms. Finney if she would participate too. And guess what???? She said yes!!!! So today, I am thrilled to share her video reading of Flare with all of you.

Audre Lorde was right (as usual) when she wrote in the essay “Poetry Is Not a Luxury” that: “Poetry is the way we help give name to the nameless so it can be thought. The farthest horizons of our hopes and fears are cobbled by our poems, carved from the rock experiences of our daily lives.”

I use poems a lot in my teaching and in my work with young people. When young people see something of themselves in a piece of literature, identify with the work, reflect on it, and undergo some emotional experience as a result of that reading, I consider that to be the basis of a successful anti-violence intervention. For years, I have been collecting poems about gender-based violence that I have used with young women (in particular) in various settings. Some of these poems can be found in a poetry guide that I created a few years ago titled “Giving Name to the Nameless: Using Poetry as an Anti-Violence Intervention with Girls.” A PDF of the guide is available at no cost to those interested in a copy. Details are here.

Life comes full circle as one of the poems that I use a lot with young women & girls is Nikky Finney’s “The Girlfriend’s Train.” I included it in the guide and am featuring it below in honor of DV awareness month. As a bonus, I am including some questions that you can use if when you are discussing the poem with girls and young women.

Note: While the guide was created with young women and girls in mind (I have the most experience facilitating poetry circles with them), the information and poems included can certainly be used with young men, trans young people and also with adults.

Read more »

Oct 03 2014

#NoSchoolPushout: Defining the School-to-Prison Pipeline

dscposter2014-page-001 Tomorrow kicks of the 5th annual National Week of Action Against School Pushout. This year, my organization will join with youth, parents, teachers and community members in over 40 cities to resist school pushout and policing. Project NIA released a short paper this morning documenting the gains and challenges in the fight to end Chicago’s school to prison pipeline. I hope that those interested in these issues will read the paper authored by my friend, Dr. Michelle VanNatta.

I thought that I would use the occasion of the week of action to offer an introduction to the school-to-prison pipeline for those who might be new to the concept. I’ll also provide some resources for those interested in further study.

Defining the School-to-Prison Pipeline (STPP)

In an article that we wrote earlier this year, Erica Meiners and I defined the STPP in this way:

“Less a pipeline than a nexus or a swamp, the STPP is generally used to refer to interlocking sets of structural and individual relationships in which youth, primarily of color, are funneled from schools and neighborhoods into under- or unemployment and prisons.

While the US public education system has historically diverted non-white communities toward under-education, non-living wage work, participation in a permanent war economy, and/or incarceration, the development of the world’s largest prison nation over the last three decades has strengthened policy, practice, and ideological linkages between schools and prisons. Non-white, non-heterosexual, and/or non-gender conforming students are targeted for surveillance, suspended and expelled at higher rates, and are much more likely to be charged, convicted, and removed from their homes, or otherwise to receive longer sentences.”

Facts and Figures

To help provide some context for the scope and impact(s) of harsh school disciplinary policies, Project NIA created a short quiz to test your knowledge. Thanks to @cronehead and @MuffMacGuff who digitized this quiz. How do you fare?

Critique of the STPP Concept

Dr. Damien Sojoyner (2013) has challenged the concept of the school to prison pipeline. The abstract of his paper titled “Black Radicals Make for Bad Citizens: Undoing the Myth of the School to Prison Pipeline (PDF) summarizes his main argument:

“Over the past ten years, the analytic formation of the school to prison pipeline has come to dominate the lexicon and general common sense with respect to the relationship between schools and prisons in the United States. The concept and theorization that undergirds its meaning and function do not address the root causes that are central to complex dynamics between public education and prisons. This paper argues that in place of the articulation of the school to prison pipeline, what is needed is a nuanced and historicized understanding of the racialized politics pertaining to the centrality of education to Black liberation struggles. The result of such work indicates that the enclosure of public education foregrounds the expansion of the prison system and consequently, schools are not a training ground for prisons, but are the key site at which technologies of control that govern Black oppression are deemed normal and necessary.”

Others have offered other critiques of the STPP concept pointing out, for example, that we need think of the process of educational and societal marginalization as one that in fact begins from the cradle or even the womb.

Activism and Advocacy

The past decade has found increasing numbers of policy makers, advocates, academics, educators, parents, students, and organizers focusing explicitly on the relationships between education and imprisonment. A lot of organizing has happened around the issue of school pushout. The Dignity in Schools Campaign (organizers of the National Week of Action) brings together over 75 organizations across the country who are working to transform school discipline policies.

Just this week, advocates and organizers in California presided over Governor Jerry Brown’s signing of a bill to limit “school administrators’ use of an offense called “willful defiance” to suspend students in California schools.” This was the result of a long-term organizing campaign. Earlier, I referenced our newly released paper that documents some of the gains made by Chicago and Illinois organizers in the fight to interrupt the STPP.

Here are some organizations and projects advocating and organizing to end the STPP.

Teaching Youth About STPP: Curriculum Resources

We at Project NIA have developed several resources that can be used by educators and organizers to discuss the STPP with young people in particular. These resources have also been used by many people to lead discussions with adults as well. Others have also developed useful tools for teaching about the STPP.

Curriculum: Suspension Stories

Curriculum: NYCLU School-to-Prison Pipeline Workshop

Comic: School to Prison Pipeline by Rachel Marie-Crane Williams

One page comic with discussion questions: Sent Down the Drain

Find many other audio, video, etc… resources at Suspension Stories

Further Study 

Disrupting the School-to-Prison Pipeline Edited by Bahena, Cooc, Currie-Rubin, Kuttner and Ng (2012)

From Education to Incarceration: Dismantling the School-to-Prison Pipeline Edited by Nocella, Parmar and Stovall (2014)

Punished: Policing the Lives of Black and Latino Boys by Victor Rios (2011)

There is a list of other reading here and here.

Over the course of this next week, I will be posting information about the specific components that make up the STPP. Stay tuned!

Sep 25 2014

October 16: Lessons in Self-Defense: Women’s Prisons, Gendered Violence, and Antiracist Feminisms in the 1970s & ’80s

I am excited to co-organize and participate in an upcoming event. Historian Emily Thuma will present a talk titled “Lessons in Self-Defense: Women’s Prisons, Gendered Violence and Anti-Racist Feminisms in the 1970s and 80s.” Her talk will explore the relationships between U.S-based anti-violence against women activism and the expansion of the prison nation in the early neoliberal era.

Emily is an assistant professor in the Department of Gender and Sexuality Studies at the University of California, Irvine. Her teaching and research focus broadly on the cultural and political histories of gender, race, sexuality, and empire in the United States. She is currently completing a book about feminist activism against violence in the context of the politics of crime control, policing, and imprisonment in the U.S. in the 1970s and ’80s.She has also long been active in LGBTQ and feminist anti-violence and prison organizing efforts.

After her talk, Emily and I will engage in a conversation that will seek to link the past to our present era when carceral feminism is ascendant. I am excited for this conversation because it connects to the “No Selves to Defend” exhibition that I co-curated and to the anthology about the criminalization of women of color who invoke self-defense that I edited. It’s fitting that this event will take place during domestic violence awareness month and the month of resistance to mass incarceration, police terror, repression and the criminalization of a generation.

RSVP for the event on Facebook. If you are in Chicago on October 16th, I hope to see you at the event.

You can read Emily’s latest essay ‘Against the ‘Prison/Psychiatric State’: Anti-violence Feminisms and the Politics of Confinement in the 1970sHERE (PDF).

Lessons in Self Defense Poster FINAL

Sep 23 2014

Irrational Exuberance: Mass Incarceration is STILL An Epidemic…

I’ve been saying for a while that the rhetoric about the “end of mass incarceration” doesn’t match up with the reality that so many people in the U.S. continue to be locked up. Today, James Kilgore published an article on the topic where I am quoted. It’s worth reading (not because I am quoted but because he raises important points).

Ultimately, the report along with events like those in Ferguson, Missouri, reinforced the concerns of many anti-mass incarceration campaigners that current changes were not digging deep enough to yield long lasting results. Peter Wagner, Director of the Massachusetts-based Prison Policy Initiative, highlighted the need for states “to decide whether the people they are sending to prison really need to be there” and the corresponding issue of deciding which people “currently in prison can go home.” Instead, he lamented, states are continuing to hike “the number of people they send to prison for new offenses and violations of parole and decreasing the number of people they let out.”

Author and activist Ruthie Gilmore, who currently is associate director of the Center for Place, Culture and Politics at CUNY, argued that the BOJ statistics have exposed the shortcomings of “opportunists” who have “blown up real solidarity.” She maintains that moderate reforms have promoted “the delusion that it’s possible to cherry pick some people from the prison machine” rather than undertake a broad restructuring of the communities which have been devastated by mass incarceration. Mariame Kaba, head of Project NIA which practices transformative justice as a foil to youth incarceration in Chicago communities, concurred with Gilmore, stressing that “the rationale for and logic of punishment is unchanged. The targets of our punishment mindset also remain overwhelmingly black and poor.”

Kaba points out that the discourse has altered but policy seems to have lagged behind. “Talk and actions are not the same thing,” she said, “there is a need to move beyond awareness and take steps to address mass incarceration in real ways.”

"Lets not forget that people incarcerated in prison are just a portion of the people under control of the correctional system. There are jails, juvenile prisons, military prisons, immigration detention, Indian Country jails, territorial prisons, civil commitment, plus probation and parole of which there are 3,981,090 adults on probation, and 851,662 adults on parole."

“Lets not forget that people incarcerated in prison are just a portion of the people under control of the correctional system. There are jails, juvenile prisons, military prisons, immigration detention, Indian Country jails, territorial prisons, civil commitment, plus probation and parole of which there are 3,981,090 adults on probation, and 851,662 adults on parole.”

Sep 21 2014

Happy Birthday Marissa!

Last Sunday, I organized a gathering to celebrate Marissa Alexander‘s Birthday. My friend Debbie made a short video that captured some statements of support and solidarity offered to Marissa. You should watch it! It’s profoundly moving.

Don’t forget to support Marissa’s legal defense fund. You can also support her by purchasing items at the Free Marissa Store.