Mar 16 2014

Louder Than A Bomb 2014: Chicago Youth Have Their Say…

The voices blared from loud speakers as hundreds listened raptly at the Cadillac Palace last night. It was the team finals of the 2014 Louder Than A Bomb Youth Poetry Festival and I was a judge. Young men incarcerated at the Cook County Juvenile Temporary Detention Center (JTDC) were reading from the zine “The PIC Is” created by my organization.

The prison industrial complex tears families apart,” one voice shared. “The prison industrial complex is where you spend your ‘best years’ just trying to survive,” said another.

Some young men tripped over their words; it didn’t matter. The audience was attentive, sporadically interjecting with appreciative sounds and fingersnaps. The stage was empty except for the DJ tucked in a corner and four microphone stands. I heard the experience described as “haunting.”

Louder than A Bomb stage as JTDC youth audio played (3/15/14)

Louder than A Bomb stage as JTDC youth audio played (photo by Nick Weaver, 3/15/14)

The disembodied voices cascaded over the crowd, emphasizing that the young people who were speaking the words were absent. I swallowed past the lump in my throat and surreptitiously dabbed by eyes. I was trying to contain my rage.

Perhaps the stark contrast between the empty stage and the voices that we were listening to was haunting. But it was also a reminder that the mostly black & brown young people who had graced the stage for most of the night prior to the JTDC performance could easily have been on the other side of the wall. The membrane that divides those performing on stage and the ones speaking through the loud speakers while caged behind bars is porous. The capriciousness and unfairness of the injustice system are a cruel reality. So I was furious.

Before and after the JTDC spoken word piece, young people took to the stage to share stories and experiences of racial & gender discrimination, adultism, addiction, family strife, suicide, gun violence, capitalist greed, and political corruption. Such large scale gatherings organized to simply listen to the truths and lived experiences of black and brown youth in Chicago are rare. I tried to take in the moment. I listened as young people of color buried the pernicious lie that they are disposable and challenged the world to “see” and “hear” them. ‘We are not who you say we are.’ ‘To those who fear and malign us, we are not violent and depraved predators and to those who say they care for us, we are not child soldiers.’ ‘We are human and we matter.’ These were, to my mind, some of the overarching statements of the night. And last night, the voices of the young people on both sides of the wall were indeed ‘louder than a bomb.’

Note: You can support the Free Write Jail Arts Program that works with incarcerated youth at the JTDC here and Louder Than A Bomb here.

Dec 28 2013

10 Creative Ways That Chicagoans Addressed Violence in 2013

** This is my final recap of 2013…

Chicago has been in the spotlight over the past few years as the epitome of urban violence. The city has been dubbed the “murder capital of the U.S.” even though this is actually untrue. I’ve written and will continue to write about the various organizing and advocacy efforts by Chicagoans to address interpersonal and structural/systemic violence. Lots of people in this city are working to address violence; many in very creative ways.

Today, I want to focus on some of the creative interventions to address violence in Chicago that I’ve either been part of or have otherwise come to my attention in 2013. Thousands of people were engaged through these projects. There were of course many other efforts that I left off this list. I invite you to submit your suggestions in the comments section. Think about how you can contribute to ending violence in your own communities and then get to work!

1. 500campaign

From NBC 5 Chicago:

After the murder totals in Chicago started racking up after January of this year, South Side native Bryant Cross decided he’d seen enough.

The 28-year-old speech communications professor started thinking of effective ways to spread an anti-violence message and came up with the 500campaign, head shots of Chicagoans with the slogan “Angry Because Over 500 Youth Were Murdered in Chicago.”

**Note: The 500 youth number cited is not at annual number. Over the course of 5 years about 500 young people under 20 years old were victims of homicide in Chicago. One is too many but it’s important to be clear about what these numbers represent.

500campaign (2013)

500campaign (2013)

See more photos on pinterest or instagram.

Below is the founder of the 500campaign, Bryant Cross, talking about his campaign:

2. How Long Will I Cry? A Play and A Book

According to the Steppenwolf Theatre website:

“Woven together from interviews gathered by journalist Miles Harvey and his students at DePaul University, How Long Will I Cry? provides raw, truthful insight into the problem of youth violence. By giving voice to those who know the tragic consequences of violence first-hand—families of the victims, residents of crime-ridden neighborhoods and especially young people—How Long Will I Cry? inspires all of us to join together in search of a solution.”

The play was performed for a month earlier this year and the stories have now been compiled into a book that is available for free to Chicagoans.

“The book contains interviews with 35 people, told in Studs Terkel-style first person: current and former gang members, parents and siblings of young people who have been killed, and cops, lawyers, nurses, and community activists who are working to stop the violence.”

How Long Will I Cry – Book Trailer from Big Shoulders Books on Vimeo.

3. Uproar Chicago: A Community-Curated Audio Collage About Chicago Violence

I initiated this project and solicited support and help from friends to execute it. We asked Chicagoans to summarize their feelings about violence in one sentence. We used a central hotline to gather responses from people across Chicago. The responses were assembled into audio collages. In late April, community members gathered to listen to the audio collage and to participate in a peace circle where we could discuss our experiences and the impacts of violence in our lives.

I talk more about the project here. Below is the main audio collage.

Visit Soundcloud to listen to all of the audio from this project.

Read more »

Nov 19 2013

Photos & Video: Picturing A World Without Prisons Opening Reception

As regular readers know, for the past few months, I’ve been curating an exhibition titled “Picturing a World without Prisons” with my friends at the Free Write Jail Arts & Literacy Program. On Friday, we had an opening reception for the exhibition and it was packed. We had a great time and were were so excited to feature artwork by youth incarcerated at the JTDC and artists on the outside who submitted photographs depicting a world without prisons. Below are some photographs documenting the opening reception.

photo by Sarah Jane Rhee (11/15/13)

photo by Sarah Jane Rhee (11/15/13)

photo by Sarah Jane Rhee (11.15.13)

photo by Sarah Jane Rhee (11.15.13)

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Oct 23 2013

Picturing A World Without Prisons: An Inside/Outside Exhibit (Nov 11-Dec 6)

Coming Soon! Hope to see you there.

WorldWithoutPrisons(1)

Picturing a World without Prisons

The U.S. is a prison nation. There is no other society in the history of humanity that has imprisoned more people. Over 2.2 million people are incarcerated in this country; representing an over 500% increase since 1970. This number excludes those we imprison in hundreds of immigrant detention centers. Our obsession with locking people up isn’t cheap. States spend over $50 billion a year just on their prison systems. The Federal government also spends tens of billions to police, prosecute, and imprison people.

Yet research and anecdotal evidence show that incarceration makes people worse and does not improve public safety. Instead of spending money on drug treatment programs, meaningful employment initiatives, health care, affordable housing, and public education, our tax dollars funnel the most vulnerable populations into the prison system so that they may languish with little-to-no access to needed resources. This is not justice. Nor is it humane. We believe that this must change.

We must dismantle the prison industrial complex. In order to do so, we have to envision what a world without prison can and should look like so that we can build that world together.

Through this exhibit which brings together the visions of incarcerated youth and people on the outside, we want to engage the public in imagining a world without prisons with us.

This exhibition is curated by Project NIA and Free Write Jail Arts & Literacy Program.

It will run from November 11 through December 6th at the HumanThread Center/Gallery for Nonviolence, Arts & Education, 1200 W. 35th street (Bridgeport Art Center, 5th floor)

Please join us on November 15th from 6 to 10 p.m. for the Opening Reception. RSVP HERE for the reception.

This event is part of Chicago Transformative Justice Fall and you can view other upcoming events HERE.

Oct 19 2013

Children’s Art About Jail or Prison…

Village Leadership Academy Student

Village Leadership Academy Student

My organization was invited to speak to students (K-7th grade) at Village Leadership Academy about our work. One of our volunteers, Bianca Diaz who is an artist, kindly agreed to speak to the students. She incorporated art in her presentation by asking students to respond to the following question visually: “What do you think it would be like to be in jail or prison?” Bianca uploaded some of the student created art HERE. I’ve included a few examples of their art below. If you are in Chicago on November 9, join us for a conversation about how to explain prison & jail to children with incarcerated loved ones. Details are HERE.

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Oct 11 2013

Image of the Day: 19th Century Juvenile Justice

Thanks giving Day in New York City. --Divine service in the city prison. (1874) - Mid-Manhattan Picture Collection / New York City -- prisons (NYPL Digital Collection)

Thanks giving Day in New York City. –Divine service in the city prison. (1874) – Mid-Manhattan Picture Collection / New York City — prisons (NYPL Digital Collection)

Sep 28 2013

Poem of the Day: Sun Up to Sun Down

Sun Up to Sun Down
by Timmy

From sun up to sun down I think about how I’m doing 8 to 9.
I sit in my cell and pray to God that I ignore negativity so I won’t catch time.
I think about the situation I put my parents through and all the money they spent when they could have spent the money on the loans they signed.
As day by day goes by I hear and see the same people eating nasty food and going to school all year round. I wish I could have changed my mind.
I sit in my cell and think of that one girl, the one that hugged and kissed me all the time.
I wish I could go back in time to realign my mind.
I sit in my cell and think about how my life would be like if I haven’t committed a crime.
So now you see, I’m doing 8 to 9.

Poet: Timmy
Facility: St. Johns Juvenile Correctional Facility, St. Augustine, FL

This poem can be found in a new anthology titled “Words Unlocked.”

Sep 24 2013

Expert Reports Filed in ACLU Settlement with Illinois Youth Prisons

From the ACLU:

“Last year, the American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois filed a lawsuit (R.J. v. Bishop) against the Illinois Department of Juvenile Justice (IDJJ), challenging conditions in the facilities across Illinois where juveniles are detained. Concurrent with filing the lawsuit, we filed an agreement with the IDJJ. That agreement called for the retention of three nationally-recognized, court-appointed experts to conduct an exhaustive analysis of IDJJ’s facilities, and make recommendations on how to move forward with improvements.

The three final expert reports now have been filed with the federal court in Chicago where the lawsuit was filed. These reports confirm the plaintiffs’ initial allegations of systemic deficiencies, especially in education, mental health, solitary confinement, and continued IDJJ confinement for lack of a community placement.

These reports now become a baseline for the ACLU of Illinois to work with the IDJJ in order to solve these problems and improve conditions for children detained by the State of Illinois. We will continue to post updates on this case.”

Read all three reports HERE.

by Rashid Johnson

by Rashid Johnson


In his overview of mental health services, Dr Krause stated: It is difficult to fully assess the workings of mental health treatment at the IDJJ, because: 1) they do not have a full complement of services, and 2) even with the groups they have right now, a number of the facilities cannot function because of the paucity of services, and essentially are not getting youth to groups or are getting them there significantly late so they cannot run the program.

A similar assessment was made of education with conclusion that there was “inadequate instruction and inadequate opportunities for students to learn” – in St Charles, the expert concluded that in a two month period (March through April of 2013) the students received the equivalent of six to eight full days of school.

Not surprisingly, the experts conclude more resources are needed – particularly more staff. However, Dr. Barry Krisberg concludes in part that two key issues are addressing the number of youth who stay past their discharge date (some just to complete programming), and addressing the need to provide “non-custodial sanctions” in the community and/or within their families for those youth who do not pose a serious threat to public safety.

Over 40% of the admissions in FY12 were of parole violators and over 10% were for misdemeanor offenses. Merely closing the door to parole readmissions and misdemeanors would decrease the population by half – freeing up resources and sufficient staff to address the education and treatment needs of the remaining youth.

Jul 31 2013

Invest in Education, Not Prisons: A Youth-Led Rally To End Violence & Reinvest in Communities

Youth activists from Fearless Leading by the Youth (F.L.Y.) and their supporters held a rally and press conference this morning to demand that funds be re-directed from incarceration to restorative justice efforts and other positive youth interventions. The rally took place at the Cook County Offices downtown to coincide with the monthly board meeting. The rally marked the 6th year anniversary of FLY and the Audy Home Campaign.

Some of the youth dressed as prisoners to make the point that the $40 million spent by Cook County to jail youth at a cost of over $500 a day would be better & more effectively spent at the community level providing needed resources.

by Sarah Jane Rhee (7/31/13)

by Sarah Jane Rhee (7/31/13)

“Cook County Board members are failing our youth, incarcerating youth isn’t working, and it is wasting money,” said youth activist and former detainee of the Cook County Temporary Juvenile Detention Center Auntraney Carter. “We are outraged that that as our friends die the county’s only response is to increase spending on juvenile detention.” (Source)

by Sarah Jane Rhee (7/31/13)

by Sarah Jane Rhee (7/31/13)

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Jul 30 2013

Standing With Incarcerated Children…

There are a lot of things that I don’t know… For example, I don’t know anything about the human genome project. I don’t know how to mountain climb. I have no idea who the current President of Paraguay is.

I do know at least one thing for sure. I know that subjecting children who we cage to rape behind bars is unconscionable. If only one child is sexually victimized in our prisons, then that is too many. I also know that sexual violence is endemic to prison. This means that no level of “reform” will eradicate it. If we want to end the rape of incarcerated children, we must close youth jails and prisons. That’s it.

photo by Sarah Jane Rhee (7/30/13)

photo by Sarah Jane Rhee (7/30/13)

Today, I stood with dozens of my fellow Chicagoans to say that we adamantly oppose the judicial rape of our children. Furthermore, we insisted that youth jails & prisons be shut down.

photo by Sarah Jane Rhee (7/30/13)

photo by Sarah Jane Rhee (7/30/13)

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