The following are some newswire photographs from my collection related to the trial of Joan (pronounced JoAnne) Little which I have previously written about here.
Category: Women in Prison
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 murmurs and bubbles,
their radiant streams,
the thought of their mysteries,
with flowers and plants surrounding them.
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.
from an unwritable book.
The real story of death,
unwritten, without pages.
Thanks to the outrageously talented Ariel Springfield, the Assata Shakur Teach-Ins have a poster that can be used to advertise your event.
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?
The Sentencing Project released a report in February about the racial dynamics of women’s incarceration in the U.S. One of the main findings was that the gap between black women’s incarceration rates and white women’s shrank in the past decade. Specifically:
In 2000 black women were incarcerated in state and federal prisons at six times the rate of white women. By 2009 that ratio had declined by 53%, to 2.8:1. This shift was a result of both declining incarceration of African American women and rising incarceration of white women.
This news was greeted with some joy in certain quarters and it’s true that a declining rate of incarceration for black women is a good thing. However, it’s also true that most women who are currently locked up are black and that black women are still more likely to be incarcerated than white women. This is a cause for continued concern and renewed activism.
I thought about this report again when I heard the news of Lauryn Hill’s three-month prison sentence for tax evasion. It will come as a surprise to no one that I think imprisoning Ms. Hill is wrongheaded and actually destructive. Like most women who are incarcerated, Lauryn Hill has children. She will now have to be separated from them for several months. Some will suggest that she has the financial resources to make sure that her children are cared for in her absence. My response is that children need their primary caregiver’s presence as much as they do financial resources. Locking Lauryn Hill up will deter no one from cheating on their taxes. If we want her to be accountable for transgressing our social norms, then I can think of hundreds of other ways that don’t involve prison time. Does anyone doubt that had Miley Cyrus been convicted of tax evasion, she would have been sentenced to community service? The question is a rhetorical one.
I find it difficult to write about Lauryn Hill because I have a great deal of affection and admiration for her. I don’t know her personally but that doesn’t matter. She is familiar to me. Being born a brilliantly talented black girl in the U.S. is to be subjected to attack, abuse, and to develop a thick skin at an early age. Lauryn feels familiar to me because we are of the same generation though she is a few years younger than me. I’ve imagined what her life might have been if she had been born in a different era. Ironically, if she had been born a generation earlier, I can imagine her walking into a jail cell under completely circumstances.
by Alicia Partnoy
On Fridays Mama breaks through
the locks and gates
to play ring-around-the-rosy with you,
counting the minutes.
Papa, from far away
in his walled-in day,
dreams of your warm skin
and your numbered minutes.
If I could, dear child,
explain to you the reason
for all the locks,
for all the gates,
for all the bars,
for the high walls,
the numbered minutes…
My child, if I could
and play ring-around-the-rosy
far from every prison…
oh we’d be playing free
and my hands
would lose all track of time…
I’ve been restless since Thursday. A lot of other people have been too. We want to DO something about the fact that the FBI has revived its pursuit of Assata Shakur by adding her to its most wanted terrorist list and increasing the bounty for her capture.
I signed a petition demanding that the government re-investigate her case and exonerate her. What else is there to do?
So on Sunday, I put a question to my Facebook friends: “Would you host a teach-in about Assata in your home, workplace, house of worship, or community?” There was a lot of interest in the idea.
So in record time with the help of my friends Dara, Shonettia, and Nicole, there’s a site where anyone can sign up to host a teach-in about Assata’s life and case during the week of June 2 through 9, 2013.
On the Assata Teach-in site, you can fill out a form with relevant information about your planned teach-in, you can find a curriculum template for a youth teach-in and next week for an adult teach in. You can find resources about Assata’s life and her case.
Additionally, there’s a call for artists to submit posters with the message “Assata is (STILL) Welcome Here” in time for her birthday which is in July.
Anyone can participate in the week-long series of teach-ins this June either by hosting one or perhaps attending one. Anyone can participate in our attempt to replace the government’s billboard branding Assata as a terrorist with a poster welcoming her into our spaces instead.
I know that many have felt helpless and I hope that these actions are small ways to help us engage in solidarity work with each other and with Assata. I hold on to these words by Alice Walker, they serve guideposts for me:
“I have learned to accept the fact that we risk disappointment, disillusionment, even despair, every time we act. Every time we decide to believe the world can be better. Every time we decide to trust others to be as noble as we think they are. And that there might be years during which our grief is equal to, or even greater than, our hope. The alternative, however, not to act, and therefore to miss experiencing other people at their best, reaching toward their fullness, has never appealed to me.”
So I hope that you will choose to act. Please visit the Assata Teach-in site and share it with others who you think would be interested too.
Stay tuned in the coming days for details about how those of you in Chicago and across the country can participate in a week-long (June 2-9) series of teach-ins about Assata Shakur.
In the meantime, I am honored to share some words written by Assata Shakur to her supporters (members of the Hands Off Assata Campaign) who organized actions to celebrate her 60th birthday. Much appreciation to my friend Dara Cooper who shared these words with me and who points out that these are the most recent direct words from Assata to the public. The letter was received in July 2007.
First of all, let me say thank you, to the many people who have helped me to celebrate my 60th birthday. Thank you for your beautiful birthday cards and for your warm and eloquent messages. Thank you for your activism, your radiant energy and most of all for your love. I am sincerely grateful for your support and for your commitment to social justice, truth and freedom.
It is somehow surprising for me to realize that I have lived on this planet for 60 years. I never imagined that I would live this long. Some of those years were very hard years, other years were happier, but I have never forgotten who I am or where I came from. For as long as I can remember, I was acutely aware of my oppression and of the oppression of my people.
In some ways it was easier for my generation. Racism was blatant and obvious. The “Whites Only” signs let us know clearly, what we were up against. Not much has changed, but the system of lies and tricknology is much more sophisticated. Today young people have to be highly informed and acutely analytical, or they will be swept up into a whirlpool of lies and deception.
Freedom, justice and liberty are words that are thrown around a lot in the United States, but for most of us, it is empty rhetoric. With each and every passing day the country becomes more repressive, the police more viciously aggressive and the so-called constitutional guarantees obliterated by scare tactics. The so-called ‘Conservatives’ are only interested in conserving their privileges and power and helping their rich friends to become richer. Black ‘Conservatives’ serve their “masters” and are basically interested in grinning, shuffling and ‘Uncle Tomming’ all the way to the bank. This is the most corrupt administration that has ever existed. They have blatantly stolen not millions, but billions of dollars. They are actively seeking to preserve the old colonial order with a new face, where the oppressed people of Asia, Africa, Latin America and the Middle East are expected to suffer happily, and sing praises to imperialism to the tune of the star spangled banner.
I received a couple of kind emails from readers who reached out to say that they appreciated my post about the false child molestation charges leveled against Zora Neale Hurston in the 1940s. One person asked if I could share the letter (written to her friends Carl Van Vechten and Fania Marinoff) referenced in my original post. It’s taken a couple of weeks for me to get to this because the letter is fairly long and I couldn’t find the time to re-type it. Well today, I present the letter transcribed as it appears in Carla Kaplan’s book “Zora Neale Hurston: A Life in Letters.” If you didn’t read the original post, it’s a good idea to read it before the letter for some context.
[October 30, 1948 -- library dated]
974 Ca[u]ldwell Ave
New York City.
Dear Carl and Fania:
No, you by no means invaded my privacy. A dozen times since this horror struck me, I have crept to the phone to talk about it with you, but the horror and the loathing of the filth that had been spewed upon me was so great and so unbelievable, that I could not bring myself to take it in my mouth.
The thing is too fantastic, too evil, too far from reality for me to conceive of it. I am charged with meeting this boy at 4:30 every Saturday afternoon in the basement of a house where I have never been and in company with two other adults whom I have never seen. This was said to be going on for more than a year, the very time when I was in Honduras. In spite of the fact that the woman who is doing this lying knows that I was not in the U.S. because I went from her apartment to Honduras. I laughed when Alexander Miller, [of] the SPCC (Children’s Society) told me that. Then he said, with a look of disappointment on his face, “Oh, but I understood differently.” I urged him to make an investigation of the matter, even give me a lie-detector test, but he brushed it aside. Then he went out into the room where the boy was, and came back to me and said, “but the boys say that it has been going on since then. You say that you returned in the Spring. William says that you have been meeting him early in August.” I laughed at that too, and said that I was not in New York City early in August. I was upstate, and could not have returned earlier than the middle of the month. “Oh maybe he could be off a week in his dates,” Miller countered. When [t]he hearing came, I found that he had fixed the date, the ONLY positive one as August 15th of this year. Then the horror took me, for I saw that he was not seeking truth, but to make his charges stick. Horror of disbelief took me. I could not believe that a thing like that could be happening in the United States and least of all to me. It just could not be true! I must be having a nightmare.
One inconceivable horror after another swept over me. I went out of myself, I am sure, though no one seemed to notice. It seemed that every hour some other terror assailed me, the last being the AFRO AMERICAN sluice of filth. You should know that a Negro who works down in the courts secured the matter and went around peddling it to papers. That is the blow that knocked me loose from all that I have ever looked to and cherished. Louis Waldman, my lawyer, assures me that the thing is so patently false, that I will have an excellent chance to sue both the Children’s Society and the paper.
But listen, Carl and Fania; I care nothing for anything anymore. My country has failed me utterly. My race has seen fit to destroy me without reason, and with the vilest tools conceived of by man so far. A Society, eminently Christian, and supposedly devoted to super-decency has gone so far from it’s announced purpose, not to protect children, but to exploit the gruesome fancies of a pathological case and do this thing to human decency. Please do not forget that this thing was not done in the South, but in the so-called liberal North. Where shall I look in this country for justice?