Yesterday evening, I joined friends from the Chicago Light Brigade for an action at Rahm Emanuel’s house. We brought a message to him and made sure that it was in lights so he wouldn’t miss it.
Category: Prison Abolition
I came across various things of interest this week and thought to share them here.
1. I listened to this very good panel discussion about abolition with Reina Gossett, Janetta Johnson, CeCe McDonald, Miss Major, and Eric A. Stanley.
2. I read a good essay by Vesla Weaver titled “Black Citizenship and Summary Punishment: A Brief History to the Present.” It’s part of a special issue of Theory & Event focused on the events in Ferguson.
3. I was interested in the findings from this Pew Charitable Trust survey about Americans’ perceptions of surveillance, privacy and security.
4. I watched and enjoyed Ana Tijoux’s new video which offers a vision of how the world might look without capitalism.
5. I was profoundly moved by Cord Jefferson’s essay “On Kindness.”
6. I’ve been listening to audio stories about Cook County Jail recorded by 96 acres.
7. Only 23 more days until opening statements in Marissa Alexander’s retrial…
8. I was bursting with pride for the wonderful young organizers from We Charge Genocide who made themselves heard this week at the UN in Geneva.
I am really, really busy so I am failing to post daily as I usually do. The fact that I am so busy with work has also cut down on my reading time.
I just got to this interview with Eric Stanley published in the New Inquiry. I think that anyone interested in the PIC should read it.
Here’s a section that I appreciated:
“A tiring critique of prison abolition that can make even a self-identified radical sound like a mouthpiece for the right is that if we abolish the PIC, we will all be subject to greater risks of harm. In response to this assertion, it is important to note at least two related points.
First, the most dangerous, violent people in our society are not in prison, but are running our military, government, prisons, and banks. Secondly, what we have now, even for people who have caused harm, is a form of nonaccountability where the survivors of a violation are often harmed again through the desires of a district attorney whose only interest is conviction rates. Anyone who has been deposed or been through a trial can attest to this. Abolition is not simply about letting everyone out of prison, as our critics like to suggest, although that would be an important component. It is forged in the work of daring to ask what true accountability, justice, and safety might look and feel like and what are the ways we might build our world now so violence in all its forms is decreased, rather than something that we only attend to post-infraction.”
Read the whole thing.
In her new book, Locked Down, Locked Out: Why Prison Doesn’t Work and How We Can Do Better, Maya Schenwar writes heartwrenchingly and unsparingly about the ravages wrought on human beings by the prison industrial complex. She tells a personal story of how her sister Kayla’s repeated encounters and contacts with the criminal punishment system have impacted her and her family’s lives.
What I appreciated most about the book is the consistent emphasis on the need for connection between people. Locked Down understands that relationships matter greatly. Connection and relationships are the very things that prisons excel at destroying.
Maya correctly identifies that the logic of the PIC “is all about subtraction.” She writes:
“Prison’s role in society, the logic goes, is to toss away the bad eggs so they can’t poison us—so we don’t even have to see them. With those eggs cleared, we seamlessly close up the gaps and carry on, clean and whole.
The surprise pops up when the broken seams are revealed—the way that incarceration rips open new holes in the social fabric of families and communities outside, severing intricate networks strung together in ways that are observable only upon their breaking. Instead of eggs, we are tossing away people’s mothers, fathers, daughters, sons, brothers, sisters, partners, friends.”
Locked Down is unrelenting in reminding us that the people who are funneled into the PIC are HUMAN and not widgets. Even when they no longer have ties with loved ones, prisoners are human beings deserving of our care. From the opening of the book, we are thrust in the middle of Kayla’s pain and her struggle with addiction. Maya is unflinchingly honest about her exasperation with her sister’s repeated arrests and her prison terms. In fact, Maya and her family decide against bailing Kayla out of prison in her latest brush with the law because they believe that jail “may be the only place that can save Kayla’s life, staving off her burning dependency on heroin.” Maya and her family are at their wits end. She writes honestly about the tension between her desire to save her sister’s life and her anti-PIC politics: “How could I reconcile my wholehearted opposition to the prison-industrial complex with a desire to see my own sister locked up?”
The entire book, however, is a rebuke to the idea that prison can “save” anyone’s life. Maya quotes Angela Davis: “Prisons do not disappear problems, they disappear human beings.” The first half of Locked Down tells of Maya and her family’s refusal to allow Kayla to be disappeared by the PIC.
The book also debunks myths about conjugal visits in prison, lays bare the ways that businesses gouge and exploit the family of prisoners through charging exorbitant rates for phone calls, highlights the importance of letters for and to prisoners, describes the deplorable treatment of pregnant and parenting mothers, underscores that “re-entry” for most prisoners is exceedingly difficult because of the barriers they face and more.
Locked Down would be worthwhile if it simply focused on these issues. But what sets it apart from other books about the mass incarceration epidemic is its focus on how people in communities across the country are working to address the problem(s). Maya features individuals, programs and organizations that are either doing reformist or abolitionist work. For example, she describes the efforts of Umoja Student Development Corporation in North Lawndale as it tries to interrupt the school to prison pipeline on a local level through the use of peace rooms and restorative justice. She shares the work of organizations like Black & Pink that run successful pen pal programs. She underscores efforts to decarcerate state prison populations and to create transformative justice models in local communities across the country. These are concrete examples and they are welcome.
Full disclosure: I was interviewed by Maya for the book and we are friends who organize together with the Chicago Alliance to Free Marissa Alexander. However, I would have the same thoughts about Locked Down if these weren’t true. I would recommend the book if I had no connections to it or its author.
In important ways, Locked Down gives voice to those who are left behind after their loved one is caged. I remember an email that I received from a prisoner’s wife a few years ago. Tina (not her real name) wrote in her note to me: “I am the other side of ‘Prison Culture’. I am the one left behind.” She wrote of love; the abiding love that she feels for her incarcerated husband. She wrote about loneliness. Loneliness that she says is worse than the kind she felt when her mother passed away a couple of years earlier. “Knowing that my mother is no longer on earth actually means that she is beyond reach to me, my husband is not dead, he is still on this earth, but beyond reach to me.” She wrote that no one in her circle truly understands what she is going through and that they are not sympathetic to her situation. She felt isolated. She was tired. She was stressed. Money troubles threatened to derail her already fragile family. Locked Down gives voice (in part) to the struggles of women like Tina and if only for that reason, it is a necessary book and an important contribution to the literature on how mass incarceration has destroyed our communities.
Throughout the book, Maya asks herself questions that are ones with which we as readers must grapple too. They are questions about whether restorative/transformative justice can encompass those who have committed terrible harm. They are questions about whether a prisoner can ever really be “free.”
I’ll end with a quote by anti-prison activist Barbara Fair because I think that Locked Down ultimately insists that we need radical interventions to end the prison industrial complex. Fair is quoted in the book as saying: “I have worked so hard at reform, and saw so little change, that I have come to the conclusion that revolution might be the only response to what is occurring in America relative to criminal justice and the prison industry it feeds.” I think that Fair gets it right and so does Locked Down. You should read the book.
If you live in Chicago, the book launch is this Sunday November 16. Details are here. In addition, all proceeds from this first week of book sales will be generously donated to Marissa Alexander’s legal defense fund.
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 1970s‘ HERE (PDF).
A monthly forum on Chicago-based cultural projects that confront, agitate, and work to dismantle the prison nation.
In the last decade, a growing number of artists, organizations and activists in the Chicago area have created artwork and developed responses to what is now termed a prison nation The U.S. locks up more people than any other nation in the world and exhausts more resources on confinement and punishment each year. One in 99 adults in the US is incarcerated; the financial and social costs to tax payers and communities is staggering. Conservatives, liberals and members of the left have all called for policy changes, yet when violence and poverty rage in Chicago neighborhoods, the common response is a call to lock more people away for longer prison terms.
Creative culture has been at the forefront of changing the public perception about the realities of social segregation, poverty, violence, and incarceration. Chicago-area artists have staged performances and exhibitions, created organizations and developed long-term projects to alter entrenched thinking and unsettle business-as-usual.
What kinds of projects are happening that create a culture of change? Can art decarcerate? Change the law? Liberate communities from violence? Envision and enact new futures?
William C. Anderson wrote a short essay about CeCe McDonald for the No Selves to Defend anthology which I share below.
Chrishaun “CeCe” McDonald is a trans woman whose bravery in the face of injustice has changed lives and perceptions in the United States. On the night of June 5, 2011, CeCe was out with friends when she was attacked. Three people began harassing her and her friends outside a bar by deriding them with racist and transphobic slurs, before attacking them physically.
CeCe fought for her life; when the dust settled one of her attackers lay dead. CeCe survived the attack, but was arrested by the police. After receiving 11 stitches to her cheek, she was interrogated without counsel and placed in solitary confinement. CeCe was charged with second-degree murder for defending herself. Rather than face trial by a jury that would not likely sympathize with her, she accepted a plea deal to the lesser charge of second-degree manslaughter.
The wonderful Jenna Peters Golden contributed to the terrific Radicalphabet poster project.
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…