Category: Prison Abolition

Mar 18 2014

Prison Reform’s In Vogue & Other Strange Things…

What a strange moment we’re in… Prison ‘reform’ is in vogue.

prison Last week, Buzzfeed published an article citing “bipartisan optimism” about prison reform. This weekend, the New York Times editorialized that out of this dysfunctional Congress “there may come one promising and unexpected achievement: the first major reforms to America’s broken criminal justice system in a generation.” On Monday, it was USA Today’s turn to deliver the ‘good news’ of reform. It appears then that folks in the Beltway and in the media are currently optimistic about criminal legal reform. The optimism has also spread to states like Louisiana, New York and Texas.

Last fall, a lot was made of Attorney General Eric Holder’s announced guidelines to reform federal drug sentencing. But as was pointed out by several commentators including the ACLU:

“…federal prosecutors already have the discretion to do what Mr. Holder is directing them to do. The trick will be getting them to do it. In other words, actually reducing the number of people subject to outdated and overly harsh mandatory minimums is totally dependent on prosecutors following Mr. Holder’s lead.”

Marijuana legalization for adults is proceeding in Colorado and Washington, with more states considering doing the same. Yet with every action, there is a reaction and last week the House of Representatives passed a bill “to force President Barack Obama to crack down on states that have legalized marijuana in any form.”

Nevertheless, the excitement is palpable about conservative organizations like “Right on Crime.” Since such groups are now willing to publicly criticize the criminal legal system as fiscally unsustainable, some hope that a window for decarceration is open. Books have been published this year suggesting that the era of the “punishment imperative” has ended (in fact that it actually ended in the early 2000s). Several words have been repeated in articles, conferences, media and legislatures across the country: fiscal responsibility, discretion, disproportionate minority contact, mass incarceration and reform.

As someone who has devoted years of her life to the work of first reforming and then later abolishing prisons, one might think that I would be excited about recent developments. In fact, my natural skepticism is now at its peak mainly because I am a student of history. The prison itself was born out of a reform movement and since its inception in the U.S. in the late 18th century, we have been tinkering towards imperfection. With every successive call for ‘reform,’ the prison has remained stubbornly brutal, violent and inhumane. A report titled “Struggle for Justice” published in 1971 put it this way:

“More judges and more ‘experts’ for the courts, improved educational and therapeutic programs in penal institutions, more and better trained personnel at higher salaries, preventive surveillance of predelinquent children, greater use of probation, careful classification of inmates, preventive detention through indeterminate sentences, small ‘cottage’ institutions, halfway houses, removal of broad classes of criminals (such as juveniles) from criminal and ‘nonpunitive’ processes, the use of lay personnel in treatment – all this paraphernalia of the ‘new’ criminology appears over and over in nineteenth-century reformist literature.”

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Mar 05 2014

Prison IS Violence…

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.

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Dec 11 2013

One Billion Rising, Eve Ensler and the Contradictions of Carceral Feminism(s)

Note: This post was written fast and while tired. It’s a work in process but I felt compelled to offer some thoughts because I have been growing increasingly pissed off over the past few days. Consider these preliminary notes. In addition, I mean the terms women & girls to include anyone who identifies with these categories. I want to take into account the ways that transgender women and girls experience violence (interpersonally and from the state).

photo of Eve Ensler from the Guardian.

photo of Eve Ensler from the Guardian.

Eve Ensler seems to have discovered state violence…in much the same way as Columbus ‘discovered’ America. She has announced herself ready to discuss and address the negative consequences of increased criminalization. Yet just a few months ago, One Billion Rising, Ensler’s global ‘anti-violence’ campaign, was primarily encouraging survivors of interpersonal violence to report their rapes & assaults to law enforcement. This, according to the campaign, was the way to hold perpetrators of violence ‘accountable’ for their actions.

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Nov 18 2013

On ‘Justice’ & Renisha McBride

It turns out that Renisha McBride was actually shot in the face.

renisha When I read the words, they didn’t compute. I read them again. They still didn’t penetrate. Early reports suggested that she’d been shot in the back of the head. I had taken a perverse solace in believing that she was walking away from the stranger’s house when he shot her. I imagined that she didn’t know what hit her when the bullet tore through her skull. I convinced myself that she didn’t know what was coming. I’m sure that fear and perhaps disorientation led her to knock on several strangers’ doors that night. But I wanted to believe that in her final moments, she was taken by surprise & maybe even died instantly. No pain; just darkness. But this likely didn’t happen. Instead she was shot in the face through a closed screen door. Her parents had to have a closed casket funeral. She was probably terrified in those final moments before her assailant pulled the trigger. I am haunted by this image.

After Renisha’s death, we performed our well-rehearsed ritual of how to respond to the cold-blooded killing of black youth. Second degree murder and manslaughter charges were brought against her assailant on Friday, nearly two weeks after her tragic death. The charges came after calls by her family and community members for the Dearborn Heights police to arrest, for the prosecutor to file charges and bring the case to trial, and for a jury to convict. Amidst this organizing, the family repeatedly called for ‘justice’ and according to their attorney: “Only a conviction will result in justice for Renisha McBride, not just charges.”

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Aug 27 2013

Guest Post: The Future of Mass Incarceration: Punishment in the Proposed Era of Decarceration

The Future of Mass Incarceration: Punishment in the Proposed Era of Decarceration

by Chez Rumpf, PhD Candidate in Sociology, Loyola University Chicago

Two weeks ago in a speech to the American Bar Association, Attorney General Eric Holder openly critiqued the United States’ “War on Drugs,” admitting it has been a failure and that its unintended consequences have severely harmed individuals, families, and entire communities. Specifically, Holder took issue with mandatory minimum sentencing policies that have contributed greatly to the build-up of the United States’ prison nation. He went so far as to instruct federal prosecutors throughout the United States to no longer pursue mandatory minimum sentences for low-level, nonviolent federal drug charges.

An End to the “War on Drugs” and Mass Incarceration?

Holder’s comments carry a great deal of symbolic importance. It is undeniably noteworthy for the country’s Attorney General to openly challenge and call for a reversal of U.S. crime policies and to acknowledge publicly that mass incarceration is a grave social injustice, in part because of the severe racial disparities that permeate the criminal legal system. It remains to be seen, however, whether the symbolic importance of Holder’s speech will translate to changes in policy and practice. As Kara Dansky recently noted on the ACLU’s blog, federal prosecutors may resist Holder’s instructions based on their own racist beliefs and adherence to “tough on crime” ideology.

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Jul 17 2013

Zimmerman, Martin, & Transformative Justice: Some Readings

by Molly Crabapple

by Molly Crabapple

I’ve been thinking about what actual justice might look like for Trayvon Martin through an abolitionist and transformative lens. A number of people have been focused on the same question. I’ve decided to archive some of those interventions below:

Justice for Trayvon… but how? Low End Theory

Prison for George Zimmerman is Not Justice for Trayvon Martin By Paul Blasenheim

Remember: a criminal conviction is not justice November 30 Blog

Restorative Justice for Trayvon Martin by Mikhail Lyubansky

Restorative Justice for Trayvon Martin by Jiva Shanti Manske

Trayvon Martin and Black People For the Carceral State by Prison Culture

Trayvon Martin and Prison Abolition by Chanel (Crunk Feminist Collective)

The Zimmerman Trial Through An Abolitionist Lens by Victoria C

We’re NOT All Trayvon Martin by Victoria Law

What Does #Justice4Trayvon Look Like? by Mychal Denzel Smith

What Would Real Justice For Trayvon Martin Look Like? by Kay Whitlock

Why America Needs Another Kind of Justice? by Phillipe Copeland

Jun 24 2013

Rotten to the Core: Sexual Violence & Youth Incarceration in Illinois

In Illinois, like in every other state of the union, we cage children as young as 10 years old. They are locked in jails and prisons for transgressions that we’ve deemed must be ‘punished.’ We are told that those imprisoned are among “the worst offenders.” But a new study released last week finds that as of 2010:

“almost 60 percent of confined youth in the U.S. (41,877) were still detained and imprisoned for offenses that do not pose substantial threats to public safety. These include misdemeanors, drug use, non-criminal or status offenses (e.g., curfew violations, truancy, running away), failure to show up for parole meetings, and breaking school rules. Arguably, those 42,000 or so low-risk youth, who pose minimal public safety risks, face a fairly high risk of recidivating and losing their futures as productive citizens due to their incarceration experiences.”

prisonsexassault

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May 27 2013

Guest Post: Redemption, Transformation and Justice, Part 2 by Kay Whitlock

CI: Redemption, Transformation & Justice, Part 2
by
Kay Whitlock

“I’m against the death penalty on principle,” a colleague said recently. “But when I think of what Ariel Castro did to those women and that kid in Cleveland, I wonder what punishment other than death could possibly suffice.” A friend of mine, normally a gentle soul, was livid: “He ought to be drawn and quartered.”

Not only had Castro kidnapped, held in captivity, raped, and tortured three adult women – Amanda Berry, Michelle Knight, and Gina DeJesus – for periods of 9 to 11 years; Berry bore a child and Castro forcibly impregnated and caused Knight to suffer miscarriages. Prosecutors have said they will add murder (“feticide”) charges.

Missing-Women-Found_Darg_Fotor_20130508-630x418

It’s always like that in the aftermath of both real and purported horrific acts of violence or transgression, the race to retribution and vengeance, incited by cases so chilling, so abhorrent that they evoke in us waves of rage and dread.

And in the midst of those powerful emotions, many of us find ourselves awash in our own violent feelings. It’s the kind of electric current feeling that can too easily turn a crowd of ordinary folks into a group of vigilantes; a paramilitary border patrol; a lynch mob; people who torch synagogues and mosques.

That’s the feeling: “Kill the evil. Destroy it. Erase it.” As if the capacity for terrible violence existed – well, somewhere else. Not in us. Not in mainstream society and its systems. It exists in the archetypally dangerous Them. The Menacing “Other.” And the only thing we can think of to help soothe our fear, our dread is the violent erasure of that which frightens and enrages us.

But most of us couldn’t possibly imagine engaging in mob violence. We stand for justice, not against it, right? Right. And still, many of us will permit our most potent feelings of rage, dread, and fear – often fed by media’s “if it bleeds, it leads” dictum and sensational coverage – to be transmuted into structural forms of violence.

This is also the electric current of emotion that powers crime policy in the United States and that limits mainstream awareness and discussion of its violent impacts. It is what too often permits the criminal legal system to function as mob by proxy.

The horrific violent offender – real or imaginary – is the image that is deployed to stop serious discussion about justice that seeks to redeem and transform rather than to administer brutal punishment.

  • It’s the image that not only tells us that we need a death penalty, but that prisons are inevitable and that the people in them deserve every form of brutality they receive.
  • It is that image that that tells us that prisons create “safety.”
  • It is the image that shores up the spiritually corrupting notion that the lives of “criminals,” especially those who have done terrible violence to others, cannot and should not be redeemed.
  • It is the image that distorts the justice visions of both the Right and the Left.

So let’s start with the current embodiment of that image.

The harm Ariel Castro has done is incalculable, and he must be held accountable for his actions. The three women and the child he held in abusive captivity deserve every possible form of assistance to mend their shattered, interrupted lives. But could he redeem his own life, even if he never goes free another day in his life? Is redemption even possible?

What might be possible (though never guaranteed) if we learn to transform our own desires for vengeance and retribution? If we confront our own fears more directly, with the intention of not having them control our policies? If we commit to forms of justice that value reclaiming and redeeming the lives of all who have been touched by violence – and that seek to change the social and economic conditions that produce so much violence?

The answer, of course, is in the hands of those who have done harm. Surely it was possible for Charles Ramsey, convicted of three felony domestic violence offenses, who completed his sentences, and also worked to transform himself. Unlike the police, he rightly named and came to the aid of a woman who he suspected was suffering from exactly that kind of violence. Surely it was for Stanley Tookie Williams, whose story of redemption and transformation can be found here. (See Of Charles Ramsey and Stanley Tookie Williams ~Redemption and Transformation, Part 1).

Another glimpse can be found in the terrible violence in South Africa that continued to unfold, even in the dying days of formal apartheid.

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May 15 2013

Poem of the Day: I Have Seen You

I Have Seen You
by Lolita Lebron

I have seen you as I searched
in the shade
of this terrifying and cold silence.
Some furniture falls to pieces…
and I’m left with the cell,
bereft of warmth and humor.
Everything is so alone. So disquieting.
Love has gone so far away from my eyes…
And there is no chirping from the birds
to make me smile away my sorrow…
“I am trembling, companero,
with painful and exhausting uneasiness!”
My shoulders hurt…as if sinking under
the weight of tortured rock,
The hour is dark.
The day silent with a moan
hidden in its great burden.
Even prayer is wounding: in the depths of my entrails
pain tearlessly weeps.
I like forests and gardens.
The waterfalls and their tiny crabs,
their rocks,
their murmurs and bubbles,
their radiant streams,
the thought of their mysteries,
with flowers and plants surrounding them.
Their aromas.
And how I loved the washerwomen,
scrubbing upon the rocks
with a box of bluing at their side.
How they remind me of mama!
Here, jail is like a tempest,
heavy and hard-hearted…
A ruin that reeks of death
and unspeakable pain.
It is the white bear’s domain.
Keys and blows, headcounts,
injustices and schemes.
Undisclosed tortures
from an unwritable book.
The real story of death,
unwritten, without pages.

May 13 2013

When Prison Abolition Was A Feminist Concern…

by Ariel Springfield (2013)

by Ariel Springfield (2013)


Once upon a time, not so long ago, people who identified as feminists cared profoundly about prisoners and prisons. They were at the forefront of advocating prison abolition. Things changed…

I decided to share this great reminder from 1971 in the radical feminist publication “Off Our Backs (PDF)” when it was still a newsletter. Below are some excerpts from the publication that includes an essay about prison abolition.

Women Prisoners Revolt

In support of their brothers at Attica and the 28 demands they made, the women incarcerated at Alderson demonstrated peacefully on Tuesday, September 14. The demonstration developed into a total strike with the women refusing to return to their cottages. Later they met with representatives of the federal prison parole board and presented additional demands including fair wages for work performed in the jail (they presently receive 7 cents an hour); mail privileges; and treatment facilities for addicts. Frustrated by the out-of-hand rejection of their demands and the harsh and adamant attitude of the prison officials, the women rioted. Tear gas was used. They were all then locked into the cottages. Three sisters “escaped” from the rooms to tell the press what had happened.

Unprecedented actions have been taken against the women who presented the demands. Sixty-six of them have been transferred to to a male youth reformatory in Ashland, Ky. Additional male guards (there are usually * 60) now patrol Alderson to enforce “order.” Authorities will not release the names of women who have been transferred or say where they will be sent now.

How Many Lives?

How many years of people’s lives must be lost, hidden, and brutalized, before we see that prisons must be abolished?

How many Atticas, San Quentins and Aldersons will it take till we realize that our society has created these monstrous institutions out of fear — fear of human freedom, cultural differences, loss of capitalist property. The ethics of our society have been distorted by this fear, and are then imposed on non-white people, poor people, young people and women to make survival and experimentation crimes. Why should people in Amerika spend years in jail for such “immoral” acts as smoking grass, getting drunk and singing in the streets, making love or printing “obscenity”, much less for standing by moral decisions not to kill or work for an immoral government? If prisons were really to protect us from psychopaths, murderers and thieves, they would contain Nixon, Rockefeller, Mitchell, Reagan, Agnew, owners of motor industries and oil dynasties, slum land lords, church leaders, and Pentagon officials. Prisons are the extreme domestic example of the racism, sexism, militarism and imperialism that we have been watching for years in Vietnam.

Who needs “rehabilitation” in our society? Not the slaves of ghetto deprivation and drugs pushed by those who wish to dull possible insurgency. Not the men and women who have learned to hustle and survive despite all efforts to destroy them. Not revolutionaries like Angela Davis and George Jackson. The people who need to be “rehabilitated” (if that’s even a correct attitude to have toward any human beings) are those whose minds and bodies have been warped by false value systems that convince them that some people must die so they can live, many must starve so they can eat, all must slave so they can enjoy rest.

“Rehabilitation” is the pacification program of liberalism. Even if we did want to “rehabilitate” sick or deviant minds or bodies, prison would be the last place to achieve it. We need to rid our selves of prisons. They are a danger to society not only because they are schools for “crime” (70% of all “crimes” are committed by ex-convicts) but because they try to erase from our consciousness people who could possibly bring about exciting changes in our social order. We need women like Angela Davis, Erica Huggins and Madame Ngo Ba Thanh among us. We need the Puerto Rican revolutionaries locked inside Alderson.

To abolish prisons we may have to develop “reforms” that carry within them contradictions that will make it hard to achieve them without drastically changing prisons — black prisoners’ unions with collective bargaining power, ending detention before conviction, a national prisoner monitoring system, open door policies, viable alternatives to incarceration. But whatever approaches are used, the goal should be prison abolition. To have no alternative at all would be better than to continue the present reality. And we can’t wait for the ending of racism, sexism and poverty in this country before we begin tearing down the walls. It may be in our own self-interest.

The question on the table: which current feminist publication can you imagine would publish such words?