The wonderful Jenna Peters Golden contributed to the terrific Radicalphabet poster project.
Category: Prison Abolition
On Thursday, I was privileged to participate on a panel titled “What is the 21st Century Landscape of Injustice? Carceral States: Surveillance, Prisons, Police, and Immigration Detention” which was part of the Freedom Dreams Freedom Now conference organized by UIC’s Social Justice Institute (and co-sponsored by my organization among many others).
My charge was to share some concrete examples of how we are transforming justice (particularly Illinois). I didn’t write a speech but I did jot down some notes. I was asked by some conference participants if I could post those notes here. I am doing so today with a caveat. These are just notes and I didn’t even share all of them during my talk. At a later date, I might try to write something more coherent to share.
Notes for Thursday’s Plenary…
I’m interested in the relationship and intersections between surveillance, prisons & policing. I came to prison abolition and transformative justice through my work to end racialized and gender-based violence in particular. I recognized that prison normalizes violence rather than challenging or ending it.
We are in the era of mass criminalization and not merely mass incarceration. This is an important distinction because while it’s imperative to center the prison in our work; our resistance must be broader.
As Beth (Richie) and Liat (Ben Moshe) have said, the carceral state extends from drug testing of welfare recipients to questions about arrests on college applications to the criminalization of mental illness to the punishment and policing of the child welfare system.
These are systemic & structural issues that require change at a broad societal level. This means investing in both communities and individuals to ensure that everyone has housing, healthcare, education, employment, and is free from violence.
The evidence is in and it shows that the rise of the prison nation is the result of policy rather than a spike in crime rates. Imprisonment and criminalization disproportionately affect communities that experience systemic oppressions.
Here in Illinois we have nearly 50,000 people in our adult prisons and about 800 in our juvenile prisons on any given day (excluding our jail population). While making up about 15% of adults in Illinois, blacks are 56% of our prison and jail population. In the juvenile system, black youth are about 20% of the state pop and 65% of those incarcerated in youth prisons. Just as an example.
WHAT WE KNOW IS THAT CRIMINALIZATION DOES NOT CREATE SAFETY.
Real community safety (everyone having access to housing, food, employment, education and freedom from violence) is not created by increasing criminalization. We need to consider transformative changes, and investing resources in communities.
All of us can work to build communities based on gender, racial, and economic justice and work towards the long-term abolition of prisons and the end of the PIC.
STRATEGIES TO END THE PIC
Critical Resistance, an abolitionist grassroots national organization, offers a framework for ending the PIC centered on: 1. Dismantling; 2. Changing; and 3. Building.
We are doing all three in Illinois. I’d like to offer a few of my own ideas and also share some of the ways that we are working to end the PIC in this state.
● Stop calling the police. Just stop. [Our Chain Reaction project here in Chicago is addressing itself to just this issue.] We need to get the cops off our streets.
● Shut down existing prisons and jails. [We’ve done this in IL; TAMMS, Dwight, 2 Youth Prisons in the last 3 years. Our challenge is/will be to keep them closed].
● Prevent the expansion of new prisons and jails [Once again we've done that in Illinois in Crete/Joliet/Champaign].
● Reduce levels of surveillance [These are campaigns that need to emerge and be inclusive]
● Interrupt and resist the criminalization of spaces like schools, parks etc…
● Ensure that our organizations (and/or organizations you work with and make referrals to) do not set up any barriers or discrimination to people who have been criminalized [support/start Ban the Box initiatives, sealing and expungement efforts, etc…]
● Distinguish between what Ruthie Gilmore and others have called reformist reforms and non-reformist reforms. Refuse to participate in the expansion and further entrenchment of the PIC.
● We must understand the symbiotic relationships of social issues such as housing, immigration, mental health care, education, jobs. Working on any of these issues is ultimately working toward abolishing the PIC.
● Reject the idea that everyone who uses drugs is an addict and therefore needs treatment. This is creating a new containment industry that has extended the reach of the PIC.
● Ensure that prisons are not positioned as a solution to complex and vexing social problems.
● Use different language (returning citizens vs ex-offenders, mass criminalization vs mass incarceration, etc…)
● Educate yourself and others. Intellectual work and analysis are important.
● Work in community with people who have been imprisoned and criminalized, value the knowledge and expertise that people with the lived experience of imprisonment or criminalization bring.
● Actively imagine a world without prisons and criminalization. Think about what actually generates safety in our communities
● Start building the world that we want to live in. Try out many things. Use restorative practices where warranted.
● Create alternatives to policing, surveillance, and imprisonment. Recognize that this takes time. But we know how to do it because as Danielle Sered of Common Justice has said: the biggest and most successful alternative to incarceration program in the United States is whiteness…
If you’ve read this blog even once, you know that I am against prisons. I am particularly against incarcerating children. Today kicks off the National Week of Action Against Incarcerating Youth.
I write a lot about the prison industrial complex (including the juvenile punishment system) and last year I published a paper with my friend Dr. Michelle VanNatta about alternatives to youth incarceration in Chicago. In the paper, we provided a brief literature review about juvenile detention and incarceration. I am republishing that part here to buttress the case against incarcerating young people.
What a strange moment we’re in… Prison ‘reform’ is in vogue.
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.
“…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.”
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.
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).
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.
It turns out that Renisha McBride was actually shot in the face.
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.”
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.
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