Nov 18 2015

Video: The Case for Diversion

If you watch Danielle Sered speak for the next 15 minutes, you will be better informed about the current state of criminal justice reform. It is well-worth your time. Danielle runs the innovative program called Common Justice.

“Common Justice is an innovative victim service and alternative-to-incarceration program based on restorative justice principles. Located in Brooklyn, New York, the program works with young people, 16 to 24 years old, who commit violent felonies, and those they harm. Common Justice aims to reduce violence, facilitate the well-being of those harmed, and transform the criminal justice system’s response to serious crime. The program provides participants with a respectful and effective means of accountability, an equitable and dignified avenue to healing, and the tools to break cycles of violence.”

Click HERE to watch.

Oct 25 2015

#SurvivedandPunished: Criminalizing Survivors of Violence

It’s domestic violence awareness month. I’ve been wanting to write about this all month. Sadly, between work and life, I’ve had little time to post regularly. I hope that 2016 will allow me to do so more consistently.

As some of you know, I was a co-founder and co-organizer of the Chicago Alliance to Free Marissa Alexander (CAFMA). CAFMA has become Love and Protect. The mission of Love and Protect is to “support those who identify as women and gender non-conforming persons of color who are criminalized or harmed by state and interpersonal violence.”

This month, in partnership with other defense committees and organizations, Love and Protect launched a project called #SurvivedandPunished.


#SurvivedandPunished released its vision statement last week. I am republishing it below:

For many survivors, the experiences of domestic violence, rape, and other forms of gender violence are bound up with systems of incarceration and police violence. According to the ACLU, nearly 60% of people in women’s prison nationwide, and as many as 94% of some women’s prison populations, have a history of physical or sexual abuse before being incarcerated. Once incarcerated or detained, many women (including trans women) and trans & gender non-conforming people experience sexual violence from guards and others. Being controlled by police, prosecutors, judges, immigration enforcement, homeland security, detention centers, and prisons is often integrated with the experience of domestic violence and sexual assault. This is especially true for Black, Native, and immigrant survivors. The Survived And Punished Project demands the immediate release of survivors of domestic and sexual violence and other forms of gender violence who are imprisoned for survival actions, including: self-defense, “failure to protect,” migration, removing children from abusive people, being coerced into acting as an “accomplice,” and securing resources needed to live. Furthermore, we demand that these same survivors are swiftly reunified with their families.

Our coalition of freedom campaigns and organizations believes that policing, immigration enforcement and the prison industrial complex are violent institutions that primarily target poor communities of color. They are fundamentally racist, anti-family, anti-trans/queer, anti-woman, anti-Black, anti-Native, anti-poor and anti-immigrant. Black women are constantly policed, controlled, and dehumanized by these systems. Immigrant and refugee survivors face constant threat of detention and deportation. Native women’s high rates of incarceration are part of the colonial conditions of ongoing gender violence waged against them. Trans women, trans, & gender non-conforming people are violently profiled and targeted by police officers and prison guards. All are threatened with being separated from their children and families. Poverty, which disproportionately impacts communities of color and trans/queer communities, renders survivors even more vulnerable to all forms of violence, including police violence and imprisonment. It is in this context that self-defense and other survival actions are often criminalized.


In the face of epidemic rates of domestic and sexual violence, anti-violence advocates have partnered with police and district attorneys to try to find protection for survivors, and to institutionalize gender violence as a “crime.” However, this pro-criminalization approach to addressing violence has created a racial divide between “good victims” and non-victim “criminals.” A “good victim” is one who readily accesses and cooperates with the criminal legal system in order to prosecute and incarcerate their batterer or rapist. But when a survivor of sexual or domestic violence is only supported when seen as a “victim of crime,” survivors who are already criminalized are not recognized as people in need of support and advocacy. Survivors are criminalized for being Black, undocumented, poor, transgender, queer, disabled, women or girls of color, in the sex industry, or for having a past “criminal record.” Their experience of violence is diminished, distorted, or disappeared, and they are instead simply seen as criminals who should be punished. They face hostility from police, prosecutors and judges, and they are often denied the support “good victims” receive from anti-violence advocates. These “criminal” survivors are then particularly vulnerable when racist pro-criminalization policies (such as mandatory minimums, the war on drugs, “Felons not Families” deportation enforcement, and increased police authority) are waged against our communities because those policies facilitate and reinforce domestic and sexual violence. For example:

Marissa Alexander defended her life from her abusive husband by firing one warning shot that caused no physical harm. She was targeted by a racist smear campaign by Florida State Attorney Angela Corey designed to frame her as an “angry black woman,” but never as a victim of domestic violence. She was prosecuted and sentenced to a mandatory minimum of 20 years in prison.

When Marcela Rodriguez called the police during a domestic violence incident, the police came, arrested her, and turned her over to Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), which detained her and forced her into deportation proceedings.

Nan-Hui Jo fled her abusive American citizen partner with her child to seek safety for her and her young daughter. She was then arrested for child abduction, and the district attorney who prosecuted her tried to portray her as a manipulative illegal immigrant seeking to cheat U.S. systems, calling her a “tiger mom” who was too competent to be a victim.

The New Jersey 4 were called a “killer lesbian gang” by both prosecutors and media after they defended themselves against racist, misogynistic and homophobic sexual violence in a gentrified neighborhood.

Ky Peterson was told that he, as a transman, was not a “believable victim” of rape after defending himself against a brutal sexual assault, and he was bullied into signing a “plea deal” of 20 years in prison.

All of these survivors of violence were prosecuted using racist, sexist, anti-trans/queer and classist logic. Many were prosecuted by using policies that target poor communities of color, and many did not receive support from anti-violence organizations. The same system that criminalizes, re-traumatizes and further abuses victims is also the one that the anti-violence movement entrusts and authorizes to protect survivors and create safety. The institutionalization of this racialized “good victim/criminal” dichotomy has left a huge portion of survivors, overwhelmingly Black women, unsupported and unaccounted for by the anti-violence movement.


We affirm the lives and self-determination of all survivors of domestic and sexual violence. We endorse efforts to abolish these anti-survivor systems and create new approaches that prioritize accountable, community-based responses to domestic and sexual violence. Knowing that abuse and incarceration are both meant to isolate and diminish the person, we hope for more restorative resources and options for survivors. We must organize for a world in which survivors are always supported by their communities. We look forward to the day when survivors do not have to resort to calling 9-1-1, anonymous hotlines, restrictive shelters far from home, and broken legal systems in their attempts to find support. We reject false dichotomies of “good victim/prisoner/immigrant” and “bad victim/prisoner/immigrant” that individualize the problems of domestic and sexual violence, and choose to instead target the systemic issues that further facilitate abuse. We focus on survivors because we want to highlight the specific pipeline between surviving sexual and domestic violence and being arrested, locked up, and/or deported.

We call for the anti-domestic violence and anti-rape movements to seriously contend with how their enmeshed relationships with prosecutors and police limits the ability to see criminalized victims as deserving of resources and advocacy, undermining their safety and well-being. We call for racial justice and migrant justice movements organizing against the violence of policing, immigration enforcement, and prisons to consistently highlight survivors of gender violence in political analysis and strategies. We call for your fearless support of survivors who live within the intersection of gender violence and criminalization. They need and deserve our solidarity.

Oct 06 2015

Video: Stories from the Inside/Outside

Video documentation of a 96 Acres Project event through a two-part projected animation loop. Two animations were projected onto the Cook County Jail Wall by artists examining the effects of incarceration. These humanizing and personal stories depict both sides of the wall—from the perspective of a family and those behind bars. “Letters Home” describes a story between a daughter and her incarcerated father, told through his letters over a ten year period and narrated by the daughter, Melissa Garcia. Artists Hector Duarte, Susan Mullen, Melissa Garcia, and Claudia Rangel collaborated to produce an animation that describes the tension and difficulties within a family experiencing a sense of loss. In collaboration with the Prison + Neighborhood Arts Project, we also projected “Freedom/Time” by artists Damon Locks, Rob Shaw, and eleven incarcerated men at Stateville Correctional Center. They explored the idea of time and notions of freedom through original hand-drawn animations. With intermissions of youth-generated text by by Yollocalli Arts Reach.

96 Acres is a series of community-engaged, site-responsive art projects that involve community stakeholders’ ideas about social and restorative justice issues, and that examine the impact of incarceration at the Cook County Jail on Chicago’s West Side. 96 Acres uses multi-disciplinary practices to explore the social and political implications of incarceration on communities of color. Through creative processes and coalition building, 96 Acres aims to generate alternative narratives reflecting on power and responsibility by presenting insightful and informed collective responses for the transformation of a space that occupies 96 acres, but has a much larger reaching outcome.

For more information: or contact Maria Gaspar at
Video Documentation by Scrappers Film Group.

Oct 05 2015

Working Toward Abolition…

by Bianca Diaz

by Bianca Diaz

In 2015, it is hard to imagine an institution more harmful than a prison. With daily reports of sexual assaults by correctional staff, hunger strikes by those opposing long-term solitary confinement, and many deaths in custody, prisons perpetuate violence and are antithetical to public safety.

In 2003, activist and scholar Angela Davis suggested that “our most difficult and urgent challenge to date is that of creatively exploring new terrains of justice where the prison no longer serves as our major anchor.” Twelve years later, her admonition is more urgent and relevant than ever. With the largest prison population on the planet—some 2.2 million people locked up and millions more under correctional supervision—politicians from Newt Gingrich to Hillary Clinton are rhetorically embracing the idea that mass incarceration is a national problem. Far fewer people, however, are ready to declare that prisons are fundamentally destructive and beyond reform. Both statements are true. As such, it is incumbent on all of us to collectively reimagine and build a viable and humane way to address our social problems beyond the endless cages. For these reasons and more, I am a prison abolitionist.

Yes, some individuals in prison have caused great harm to people and to communities. This cannot be minimized. That’s precisely why I am so passionate about the need to create community-based structures to address harm and to mediate conflicts. As a survivor of violence, I want safer communities. Importantly, most people who do harm will never be imprisoned. Building community-based structures will allow us to focus on harms that our current systems of policing and punishment ignore, neglect, or are unable to resolve.

From Ferguson to Baltimore, from Rikers Island to Guantánamo Bay, our prison nation ensures expensive and profound precarity and violence. Yet the current interventions posited as “alternatives to incarceration”—including drug-treatment programs, boot camps, community-based supervision or probation, electronic monitoring, and community service—still depend on carceral logics of surveillance, containment, and sometimes punishment. We must create new forms of justice defined by principles of respect, interrelatedness, and mutuality, and we need to ask: Are prisons obsolete?

Obviously, abolishing prisons is not something that will be accomplished easily, but we do have a growing community-accountability movement we can build on. Organizations and groups like Critical Resistance, Black & Pink, We Charge Genocide, Common Justice, the Audre Lorde Project, and my own organization, Project NIA, among many others, are practicing abolition every day. We are doing so by creating local projects and initiatives that offer alternative ideas and structures for mediating conflicts and addressing harms without relying on police or prisons.

When I speak of abolition, I don’t demand the immediate closing of all prisons (though we can certainly accelerate the process of decarceration through, for example, abolishing cash bail). The abolitionists I know understand that as a society we will always need to ensure accountability for people who repeatedly cause harm. Part of our work, then, must be to create the conditions necessary to ensure the possibility of a world without prisons.

Scholar-activist Ruthie Gilmore has defined abolition as “a movement to end systemic violence, including the interpersonal vulnerabilities and displacements that keep the system going.” Practically, that looks like “creating structures that reduce the demand and need for prisons,” as my friend and colleague Erica Meiners has written. She adds: “It is ensuring that communities have viable, at least living-wage, jobs that are not dehumanizing. It means establishing mechanisms for alternative dispute resolution and other processes that address conflict or harm with mediation. It means ensuring that our most vulnerable populations, for example those who are mentally ill or undereducated, do not get warehoused in our prisons and jails because of the failure of other institutions such as health care and education.”

As there is no blueprint for abolition, we must spend time imagining, strategizing, and practicing other futures. In my work this encompasses many facets: We organize and mobilize to address the root causes of oppression and violence. We test the limits of our imagination of what’s possible in terms of addressing violence and harm. We creatively rethink our current structures of policing and warehousing individuals. We expose the brutality and abject failure of the current system. We foreground a revolutionary transformation of ideas while demanding that our resources be radically reallocated. Collectively envisioned and determined, abolition will look different from one community to the next. There are many vexing questions and unknowns to puzzle through, but we can do this together. We must, we will, and we are.

Jul 20 2015

‘My Cracks Are Now Gaping Wounds…’

This afternoon, I facilitated a welcome circle for a young man recently released from prison. Due to confidentiality, I can’t speak about his specific experiences. I did get permission from him to share one sentence from the circle:

“My cracks are now gaping wounds and the bleeding is invisible.”

There were audible gasps when the young man spoke these words today. Gasps and some tears. The purpose of the circle was to provide support and encouragement. It was also to identify his needs and how those in his community might help to meet them. His needs are many and resources are criminally limited. I keep replaying this sentence in my head:

“My cracks are now gaping wounds and the bleeding is invisible.”

This young man was wounded before entering prison. He was in his words already cracked. After three years in prison, his cracks are wider and deeper. His assertion that he is invisibly bleeding is searing and frightening for both him and for his community. How do we stanch the bleeding? I now envision thousands, hundreds of thousands, millions of walking wounded bleeding invisibly all around us. I am haunted by the image and paralyzed as to what to do.

Our circle today was an embrace of this young man to let him know that he is not alone. It’s a necessary step in a long process that cannot begin to prioritize his need for healing. It’s not close to adequate and definitely not enough to stop the bleeding. I’ve been thinking a lot during this current moment of increased attention to mass incarceration that too few understand the scope and scale of the problem. Those who can best speak to these are struggling to survive inside and outside the walls of the cages in which we confine them. Their families and friends are too often shamed and silenced. The stage is ceded to elite technocrats who don’t seem to care that “lives matter more than the data representing them.”

The parameters of the mass criminalization “debate” are currently being delineated and cemented. We’re allowed to talk about the ‘war on drugs’ and the importance of freeing “non-violent” offenders. Those setting the boundaries of acceptable demands are fully aware though that this will not end mass incarceration (not even close). Anyone who is serious about addressing the problem understands that we’ll have to also free many people convicted of violent offenses to begin to turn the tide. Importantly too, the anti-Blackness endemic to the criminal punishment system is glossed over with euphemisms like ‘disproportionate minority contact’ if ever discussed. The criminal punishment system helps to create and then feeds off Black people’s expendability. The system has always reinforced white supremacy and maintained the subordination of Black people. How can the criminal punishment system be transformed without action to uproot white supremacy? There’s so much rhetoric and smoke and so little action and substance. The young man in today’s circle and the thousands like him deserve better.

I’m sitting on the floor of my living room as I type and I am crying. I’m thinking about a 25 year old young Black man who has to borrow $5 to get on the bus that will take him home after a circle while he bleeds invisibly. I’m thinking about a 28 year old Black woman who has to reconnect with her children while she bleeds invisibly. I’m thinking of the 17 year old trans person locked up for suspicion of prostitution. We’re in a state of emergency and the elites who created the carnage are discussing which color Bandaids to buy for the gaping wounds. The people who created the problem are now loudly proclaiming that they are the best positioned to solve it. It makes me ill and so very pessimistic.

“My cracks are now gaping wounds and the bleeding is invisible.”

I don’t know how we’ll stop the bleeding…

Jul 18 2015

Chicago’s Million Dollar Blocks

My friend Dr. Ryan Lugalia-Hollon has written an article suggesting that in the urban planning field “public safety is rarely taken up as a sphere of concern.” He points out that it is important to take into account how policing and prisons have shared our urban spaces. Finally he introduces a terrific new mapping project that seeks to fill in the gaps.

Quoting from the article:

“In Chicago, where I live, is far too familiar with the New Jim Crow. On parts of Chicago’s West Side, nearly 70 percent of men between ages 18 and 54 are likely to have interacted with the criminal justice system, casting the long shadow of concentrated criminality across local households, schools, parks, bus stops and places of business.

Through a new website, Chicago’s Million Dollar Blocks, some colleagues and I show exactly how much the State of Illinois has been spending to incarcerate residents of these areas. As the site demonstrates, in the five-year period from 2005 to 2009, more than $500 million was committed to incarcerating residents of a single neighborhood on Chicago’s West Side. That’s many millions of dollars more than will be spent on schools, housing, transportation, job creation or parks in the area.

Our site builds on a tradition of “incarceration mapping,” begun by Eric Cadora of the Justice Mapping Center. Starting with Cadora’s identification of these incarceration hot spots in the early 2000s, urbanists have started to think more critically about the impact of the criminal justice system on place.”

Check out the new website Chicago Million Dollar Blocks.

Jul 07 2015

Video: Slavery to Mass Incarceration

“The Equal Justice Initiative released Slavery to Mass Incarceration, an animated short film by acclaimed artist Molly Crabapple, with narration by Bryan Stevenson. The film illustrates facts about American slavery and the elaborate mythology of racial difference that was created to sustain it. Because that mythology persists today, slavery did not end in 1865, it evolved. Its legacy can be seen in the presumption of guilt and dangerousness assigned to African Americans, especially young men and boys, the racial profiling and mistreatment that presumption creates, and the racial dynamics of criminal justice practices and mass incarceration.”

Jun 16 2015

Video: A Family Locked Apart

From Narratively:

“William Koger lives in Washington, D.C., with his mother, Sandra, and three boys: Isaiah, 11, Demetri, 10, and Deshawn, 8. But it is the absence of their mother, Sherrie Harris — who is serving a long-term sentence at Hazelton Penitentiary, in Bruceton Mills, West Virginia — that looms over the household. William took on the unexpected role of primary caregiver to all three children, including one stepchild, but he has been in and out of jobs and in and out of prison himself. After being injured in a serious car accident, he is now unemployed and often in severe pain. The family is stretched financially and often unable to afford food or medicine. The children are emotionally scarred by their mother’s absence and sometimes withdraw into their shells or act out. Only when pressed do they express their intense yearning for their mother to come home, rejoin the family, and provide them with the maternal love they are missing. Sherrie Harris has been incarcerated since 2006 and is scheduled to be released in 2017.

This piece is part of a much larger multimedia project, titled Locked Apart, that includes multiple families in Washington, D.C. and Philadelphia. I believe it is appropriate to acknowledge that family members of offenders are among those who are victimized when a crime occurs. Like the voices of crime victims and their families, the voices of offenders’ family members should be heard.”

Watch this video.

Locked Apart from Narratively on Vimeo.

May 26 2015

Poem for the Day: Mr. Mail Man

Mr. Mail Man
(by Adolfo Davis, from Thoughts of A Broken Child)

Mr. Mail Man, please don’t pass me by today.
I need to receive some love from the outside world.
I guess they went on with their lives.

I don’t know how many more pass-bys I can take from the mail man,
So please don’t pass me by today.

The last letter I got was one I sent myself,
Just to hear them say “Davis” you got mail.

Because hearing your name called for mail is a feeling of grace, love, peace, joy and happiness all in one.
Because you feel someone cares.

But, when your name isn’t called,
It’s like getting your heart broke for the first time.
You never want to feel that pain again,
But you still put yourself out there hoping you get mail.

So today Mr. Mail Man, Please don’t pass me by.

P.S. I was passed up once again

May 26 2015

‘Sending Kites:’ Letters and Poems to Incarcerated Children

Last Thursday, I organized an event at the Hull House Museum as part of the National Week of Action Against Incarcerating Youth. On any given day in 2013, almost 55,000 juveniles were held in custody across the U.S. In Illinois, about 700 children and youth are held in our 6 juvenile prisons on any given day. Sending Kites brought together people of all ages to bridge the divide between those inside and those of us in the outside world.

photo by Bobby Biedrzycki (5/21/15)

photo by Bobby Biedrzycki (5/21/15)

The event included some basic facts about juvenile incarceration in Illinois. We were also graced with the presence of a wonderful young person who shared his incarceration experience. Finally, led by my friend, writer and artist Bobby Biedrzycki, the assembled group wrote letters and poetry to incarcerated children. The writing produced in just a few minutes was poignant and beautiful. It will be compiled into a zine that we will mail to incarcerated children through a new program called Liberation Library.

There were many wonderful pieces written and I’ll share one below.

I am imagining what it might be like for your inside.
I’m making a space inside of myself where your voice could be heard.
The voice that is locked in a cage.
It can slip through the bars, under the doors, out of the windows and into the world.
You are in the world too.
There are many of us making spaces for you.
We see you.
We hear the voice that you have not yet released.
We will be here when you do.

photo by Frances Herrera-Lim (5/21/15)

photo by Frances Herrera-Lim (5/21/15)

All available research about juvenile incarceration suggests that it doesn’t work and worse that it is actually counterproductive. Yet we still lock up thousands of children each year. Those children are overwhelmingly Black, they are poor, they are mostly male, they suffer from mental illness and trauma, and they are under-educated. We can do so much better. For information about where your state stands in terms of juvenile incarceration, take a look at this interactive map by the ACLU.

For those in Chicago, Liberation Library is recruiting volunteers who can help to pack and mail books and write to incarcerated children starting this July. You can sign up to volunteer here. We are also collecting books and funds here.