Category: Prison

Apr 19 2014

Video: Why Are We Sending So Many Women to Prison?

This is a good short explainer by Brave New Films…

Apr 15 2014

Nearly 12,000 Petition Signatures To Be Delivered Today!

by Antonia Clifford

by Antonia Clifford

On Tuesday April 15, 2014 at 2 p.m. local Arizonians will deliver a petition signed by nearly 12,000 people from across the U.S. asking that County Attorney Bill Montgomery drop the charges against Shanesha Taylor.

People across the country ask that Maricopa County & Bill Montgomery use common-sense & compassion to provide support for Ms. Taylor and her children rather than punishment.

Phoenix resident Kelsie Dunmire is coordinating the petition delivery. She explained her involvement this way:

I became involved in delivering the petition signatures because Shanesha Taylor’s story is the story of so many other people. She was doing what she had to do to try to support her children and herself with the limited resources that she had available to her; she shouldn’t be jailed for thatI hope that County Attorney will drop the charges against her.”

Kelsie will be joined by Rev. Jarrett Maupin and other community members at County Attorney Montgomery’s office at 2 p.m.:

Maricopa County Attorney’s Office
301 West Jefferson Street, Suite 800
Phoenix, AZ 85003  

If you are in the Phoenix area, you are invited to join in the petition delivery event.

In solidarity with this event, a virtual petition delivery will happen on social media (Facebook, Twitter, and Tumblr) at 10 am (Arizona time). Over 260,000 people will hear the message that Bill Montgomery should drop the charges against Shanesha Taylor.

Apr 15 2014

Snippet From History #5: Judge Edward Aaron, White Terrorism, and the KKK

With this weekend’s terrible shooting at a Jewish community center, the KKK is again in the news. Many Americans, though, either view the organization with indifference or low-level contempt. After all, it’s difficult to get exercised about an organization that is most often portrayed as being passé, in decline and lacking power. Yet the KKK is in fact alive and active aross the United States. And I think that we need to understand its origins as a white terrorist organization in order to fully grasp American history and to understand our present.

There’s a scene in the film Mississippi Burning that references the story of a black man named “Homer Wilkes” which is actually based on the true story of Judge Edward Aaron.

In September 1957, six members of the KKK in Birmingham, Alabama kidnapped Judge Aaron, took him to their meeting place, and castrated him with a razor blade. What was unusual about this case is that the men were arrested, tried, and convicted by all-white juries of “committing mayhem” & “assault with intent to murder.” Four of the defendants were sentenced to twenty years in prison. Two who testified against their peers were given five year sentences.

Judge Edward Aaron, a handyman, was walking with a woman when he was apprehended by robed and hooded men. There was a brief struggle before he was subdued and knocked unconscious. Aaron was hit in the head with a pistol, a wrench, and kicked in the face. B.A. Floyd mutilated Aaron as a test of whether he would be promoted to Klan captain.

Aaron was randomly picked for torture. His sin was being a black man. Judge Aaron didn’t die. Instead, he testified at some of his assailants’ and torturers’ trials. He told the jury that when he came to, he was emasculated. He pretended to be unconscious because he heard one of the Klansmen say: “If he wakes up, blow his brains out.” When he was apprehended, he was told that he would serve as a warning to other blacks not to participate in or support integration efforts.

One of the culprits testified that he thought they were simply “going to scare the hell out of a negro” & was surprised at what he saw when he came in from standing guard outside the meeting place. After castrating Aaron, they poured turpentine in his wounds, put him in the trunk of their car, and dumped him in a creek where he was found by police. Judge Aaron, who was reportedly mildly developmentally disabled, was near death from blood loss.

The men who tortured Aaron were ordinary white men: construction workers, supermarket clerks, newspaper editors, etc… Their names were William Miller, John Griffin, Joe P. Pritchett, Jesse Mabry, B.A. Floyd and Grover McCullough. I point out their “ordinariness” because it’s important to note that it wasn’t “monsters” who upheld white supremacy and committed torture against black people and others in this country. It was “ordinary” white people who were backed by the power of government.

When George Wallace became Governor of Alabama, he pardoned the four men who had been given 20 year prison sentences. He did not pardon the two who had turned state’s evidence against their peers. He didn’t explain why he made the decision. He didn’t have to. He restored proper order and made it clear that terrorizing black people was sanctioned by the state.

I’m not sure how many people in this country know Judge Aaron’s story. I don’t forget his story. But I am keenly aware that there are thousands of other stories of white terrorism in the U.S. that I don’t know. Those stories should be unearthed and shared. They tell us something about what we are as a country. They ground practices like stop & frisk in a historical context that helps us to understand the virulent violence of the practice. There is a direct line between Judge Aaron unsuspectingly walking with his girlfriend & being kidnapped by hooded men with the backing of state power & the unsuspecting young black man in NYC who is apprehended by cops for simply walking while black. Stop & frisk terrorizes black & brown young people. History resonates still…

Apr 14 2014

“Stealing Chickens” & “Manifesting Prostitution:” Lizzy Williams, Monica Jones & Criminalizing Black Women

On Friday, Monica Jones was found guilty of “manifestation of prostitution.” I was unsurprised and upset. Unsurprised because the criminal punishment system is inherently racist, sexist, heterosexist, transphobic, classist, ableist, & so on. Upset because I hate injustice. Jones is part of a long line of black women who have been unjustly targeted by the state. She vows to fight on and so should we all.

Black women in the U.S. have been excluded from definitions of ‘respectable’ and/or ‘proper’ womanhood, sexuality, & beauty. This matters when one considers how we’re treated within society as a result. Black women have also been constructed as always ‘publicly available.’ Think of how this played out for Monica Jones as a trans black woman (though repeatedly misgendered by authorities) and for other black women. If we are always ‘publicly available,’ then charging us with manifestation of prostitution is more likely. These ideological constructs have their roots in justifying slavery and our general subjugation. They are doing particular work and we see this work clearly ‘manifested’ in the historical criminalization of black women. Unfortunately, there have been few studies about the history of black women’s punishment and criminalization. Notable exceptions include work by Kali Gross and Ann Butler. So when I come across interesting stories about crime and punishment in Black women’s history, I try to document them.

In 1951, a black woman named Elizabeth (Lizzy) Williams escaped from an Alabama prison farm. She had served nine long years of a 218 year prison sentence. What could Ms. Williams have done to deserve 218 years behind bars? She was convicted by three all-white juries of lying to protect her boyfriend from a robbery charge for stealing chickens. Officially, she was convicted of one count each of unarmed robbery by three different Alabama juries (even though there was no evidence that she had participated in any robberies).

In 1942, Lizzy, the mother of a young daughter, was dating a man named Turner Washington. He came home one night and told her that he had stolen some chickens. As Lizzy recalled: “He said if you don’t tell them I was with you, they’re gonna burn me.” So she lied for him to law enforcement.

When asked about her trials, Lizzy, who quit school in the third grade, couldn’t recall them. She explained: “They was the judge and two or three men on the right of me…They talked between themselves and then they told me how much time they was giving me (Atlanta Daily World, 4/16/78).” No attorney represented her. Lizzy Williams didn’t stand a chance of a ‘fair trial’ in 1940s Alabama where black people were routinely sentenced to long prison terms for minor crimes.

After being forbidden from holding prayer services in prison, Lizzy fled to Detroit where she lived with family for the next 27 years. As a fugitive, she made a living as a maid, a seamstress, and by leading church revivals. She lived in poverty afraid to apply for any benefits in case she would be discovered. She recounted having to eat bug-infested food while incarcerated.

At 60 years old, Williams was arrested by local police after her sister informed them of her whereabouts. Lizzy and her sister Annie had argued so Annie alerted law enforcement of her outstanding warrant. Lizzy was jailed for eight days in January 1978. In March, officials in Alabama asked that she be extradited to serve the remaining 209 years of her sentence.

After an outpouring of community outrage, Michigan governor William Milliken refused to extradite Lizzy Williams stating that: “The ends of justice would not be served” by sending her back to Alabama.

It’s inconceivable to me that a white woman in Alabama would have been subjected to such racist treatment in the criminal legal system. Lizzy Williams, however, would not have had access to ‘proper’ womanhood as a buffer from harsh treatment. This, in part, explains how she could be sentenced to 218 years in prison for lying about some chickens.

I’ll be part of a discussion about the contemporary criminalization of black women and girls sponsored by the Black Youth Project this Wednesday at 6 p.m. Details are here and all are welcome.

Apr 12 2014

Musical Interlude: Behind Enemy’s Line…

I love Dead Prez…

You ain’t gotta be locked up to be in prison
Look how we livin, thirty thousand niggas a day
Up in the bing, standard routine
They put us in a box just like our life on the blocks
(behind enemy lines)
You ain’t gotta be locked up to be in prison
Look how we livin, thirty thousand niggas a day
Up in the bing, standard routine
They put us in a box just like our life on the blocks
(behind enemy lines)

Apr 11 2014

STOP NEW PRISONS: California Has Always Been A Mess & So Has Jerry Brown…

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I’m really lucky. Since people know that I am interested in prisons, friends and acquaintances often send me items that they think I’ll like. A couple of years ago, a friend’s mother who was a prison abolitionist in the 1970s sent me some old issues of a feminist anti-prison publication titled “Through the Looking Glass.” I put them in storage but recently I pulled out a couple of copies for an exhibition that I am planning. As I flipped through one issue, I came across a statement published by Women Against Prisons in 1978. It’s incredibly relevant to what is currently happening around prison issues in California so I am republishing it. [Notice that Jerry Brown plays a central role here in 1978 - unbelievable]

STOP NEW PRISONS

Once again the law and order forces in California are pretending to solve the problems of poverty and crime by building new prisons. This year there are two separate actions pending in the legislature that would authorize millions of dollars for the construction of new prisons.

LAST YEAR’S VICTORY

Last year strong pressure from individuals and groups throughout the state stopped the allocation of nearly $100 million for 4-6 new men’s prisons and 1 new women’s prison. Two years ago similar pressure forced the closure of a behavior modification unit at the California Institution for Women (the state’s women’s prison). WE HAVE STOPPED THEM BEFORE. WE CAN AND MUST STOP THEM AGAIN!

THIS YEAR’S STRUGGLE
Despite last year’s widespread opposition to prison construction, the California Department of Corrections (CDC), Governor Brown, and certain right-wing legislators remain firm in their commitment to lock up more people. As part of his strategy for getting votes in the upcoming gubernatorial campaign, Governor Brown has proposed that $100 million be allocated to build 5 new men’s prison (to be located in Southern California) and one new women’s prison (to be located in Northern California), a total of 2400 new beds. Additionally, Senator Robert Presley of Riverside has proposed the spending of $130 million on facilities for 3600 more prisoners. Both the Governor’s proposed new prison budget and Presley’s bill, SB1342, have to go through subcommittees and committees of both the Senate and Assembly this Spring (April or May 1978). If approved, they will then move on to the entire legislature for a final vote. The Presley Bill has already passed the Senate Judiciary Committee. The legislature is moving faster than anticipated. It is important that we apply public pressure at every step. We must act now!

The CDC claims that new prisons are needed because existing prisons are overcrowded, rundown, and located far from urban centers. But new prisons will not necessarily mean better prison conditions or the tearing down of the old prisons. New prisons will cause more people to be locked up under the same intolerable conditions that exist now. The vast majority of prisoners are low-income, and a disproportionately high number are Third World. Their crimes are those of economic and social survival: robbery, forgery and bad checks, and drug-related crimes are among the most common. Most homicides for which people are in prison are related to family violence, drugs, and car accidents.

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Apr 10 2014

Poem of the Day: ‘I Am Somebody’ by Joan Little

Since I am in the middle of working on a project focused on the history of criminalizing women for self-defense, I am coming across a number of interesting pieces of information.

Here’s a poem written by Joan Little:

I AM SOMEBODY!
By Joann Little

I may be down today
But I am somebody!

I may be considered the lowest
on earth; but I am somebody!

I came up in low rent housing,
sometimes lived in the slums;
But I am still somebody!

I read an article where a black youth
was jailed, he stole some food, but got
15-20 years – he was somebody!

I killed a white in ‘self-defense’
but the jury doesn’t care – and when
he came for me to prepare trial –
he said she deserves the chair –

Every time

Every hurt and pain I feel inside,
Everytime I pick up the morning news
only to see my name on the front page –
I begin to wonder; they make me feel
less than somebody.

But in the end I will have freedom
and peace of mind. I will do anything
to help prove my innocence. Because
of one important fact above all…

‘I am somebody!’

Source: Save Joann Little (Women’s Press Collective, 1975)

Apr 09 2014

Video: Explaining Mass Incarceration in Under 4 minutes…

This new video is a useful primer about mass incarceration in the U.S. I would of course make a different video; one that explicitly addressed the RACIST, CLASSIST, and HETEROSEXIST nature of the system. But alas this is intended to be an introduction and it is palatable to a broad audience. I think that it would be a useful teaching tool and one question that you might ask students is: “What’s missing in this narrative?” Another would be: “How would a prison abolitionist present their case in under 4 minutes?”

Apr 08 2014

Image of the Day…

Orlando (Florida) Prison (1938) by Ralston Crawford

Orlando (Florida) Prison (1938) by Ralston Crawford

Apr 07 2014

On Police Torture, Bearing ‘Witness’ and Saving Ourselves…

I misjudged the weather. I didn’t dress appropriately. It’s cold and gray. Perhaps this is fitting.

Standing outside the Daley Center & across from City Hall, on Friday, about three hundred people chant: “What do we want? Justice. When do we want it? Now.”

Over one hundred people (118 to be exact) hold black banners/flags on wood sticks with the names of Jon Burge and his police officers’ torture victims. They called themselves the “midnight crew.” For over 20 years, they tortured an estimated 118 people, all of them black. 118 black bodies tortured in plain sight. The names are written in white on the black flags. Perhaps this is fitting too.

photo by Alice Kim (4/4/14)

photo by Alice Kim (4/4/14)

Most of the people who carry the banners are attending the Amnesty International 2014 Conference. They are mostly young and white. When the names are read out loud from the stage, they move over to stand in formation, silently acknowledging the sins of white supremacy. I wonder if they think of it this way; as atoning for a legacy of white terrorism. It strikes me again that the past is not past.

photo by Toussaint Losier (4/4/14)

photo by Toussaint Losier (4/4/14)

Nineteen men who were tortured by Burge still languish behind bars — their confessions extracted through electrocution, suffocation, and vicious beatings. I wonder if people know about this Guantanamo in Illinois or more accurately our Illinois in Guantanamo.

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