Nov 10 2014

Broken Bonds, Un-Broken Cages: Some Thoughts on Locked Down, Locked Out

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.

Prison12_sized 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.

Oct 25 2014

Damo, We Speak Your Name: Resisting Police Violence in Chicago

Dominique (Damo) Franklin, we speak your name. Your (imperfect) life mattered. Look at what you’ve inspired…

In May, I wrote about the death of a young man known to his friends as Damo at the hands of the Chicago Police Department (CPD). Months later, answers about his killing are still elusive. To conclude my post about Damo’s death, I wrote:

“He was managed throughout his life through the lens of repression, crime, and punishment. And now he is dead and those of us left behind must find a way to heal while building more justice. We’ll continue to fight in Damo’s memory because we won’t allow his death to have been in vain…”

We are keeping our promise. On Wednesday, hundreds of people participated in manifestations of Damo’s legacy.

Damo, in a couple of weeks, your friends and peers are on their way to the United Nations in Geneva to tell your story that of countless others who have perished and been tortured at the hands of the CPD.

Your death has inspired this song though we would rather have you alive and here with us. The telling of police torture is a mourning song. But the protest on Wednesday evening reminds me that it is also a freedom song.

Damo, we speak your name. Your (imperfect) life matters.

At Wednesday’s protest, your friends and peers invoked your name; placing it alongside Roshad, Deshawn, Rekia and Mike’s.

“Protect and serve that’s a lie, you don’t care when black kids die.”

I am really tired and I am incredibly inspired. I am still struggling to find the words to express my feelings. So I am going to rely on photos taken by friends and comrades to end this post. I am privileged and humbled to organize with a wonderful group of people. I wish Damo was here to join us.

Damo, we speak your name. Your (imperfect) life still matters… In your memory, we will continue working to shut down oppression.

Read more »

Oct 20 2014

Walking in Lawndale For Marissa and Other DV Survivors

It was another busy weekend. On Saturday, I was privileged to participate in the 2nd Annual Domestic Violence Awareness Month Walk organized by my friends at A Long Walk Home. This year, they chose to honor Marissa Alexander.

Below are some pictures from the march taken by my friend Sarah Jane Rhee.

photo by Sarah Jane Rhee (10/18/14)

photo by Sarah Jane Rhee (10/18/14)

“Who are we? Families”

photo by Sarah Jane Rhee (10/18/14)

photo by Sarah Jane Rhee (10/18/14)

“What do we do? Stop The Violence.”

photo by Sarah Jane Rhee (10/18/14)

photo by Sarah Jane Rhee (10/18/14)

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Oct 18 2014

Guest Post: ‘Not Made for TV:’ Ferguson Reflections by Kelly Hayes

Continuing the series of reflections by local Chicago organizers who traveled to St. Louis and Ferguson last weekend is my comrade Kelly Hayes. I am so happy to feature Kelly’s words and photos today.

It’s been about three days since I returned from Ferguson October, and my body and mind are finally starting to settle back into the life I know. A number of people have asked me about what I saw and experienced there, and I’ve generally responded with simplistic, vague statements like, “It was intense.” I’ve done this partly because I haven’t fully processed all that I saw and heard out there, and partly because I know that as soon as I start to speak, I’ll be walking a fine line between bearing witness and co-opting someone else’s narrative and struggle. Because while I am a person of color, I am not black, and I do not live in a community where my life has been deemed utterly disposable. Were my partner and I to have children, I would not spend my days wondering if some police officer would imagine their cellphone was a weapon, or simply gun them down out of a blind contempt for all things black.

This disposability of blackness is not my daily reality, so I know I must take care in how I explain what I saw and experienced on those streets, amongst those brave people.

photo by Kelly Hayes

photo by Kelly Hayes

I arrived in St. Louis on Saturday. The atmosphere was much as I expected it to be, with props and banners and high spirits. There were smiles. There was laughter. There was spectacle. I was glad I walked with those people, some of whom traveled great distances just to participate in that march, before hopping back on their buses for the long trip home. I was glad I was there, but even as we marched, I thought, “This is the gentle part.” And it was.

photo by Kelly Hayes

photo by Kelly Hayes

Mike Brown means, we’ve got to fight back!

That night, I arrived at the scene of Mike Brown’s murder around 7:00pm. A small crowd had formed. I took photographs and talked to a few people. The scene was calm. Then, out of the relative quiet, I heard chanting, as hundreds marched up the street to the memorial. At that point, the scene became infused with an energy I can hardly describe. Despite my exhaustion and my bad back, I could only feel what was being expressed all around me: uncertainty, heartbreak, rage, and an aching need for some kind of justice. But there was something else in the air. Ferocity. These young people meant it when they chanted, “We’re young! We’re strong! We’re marching all night long!”

The crowd moved fast, and I’m not actually as young and strong as I used to be, but I had no trouble keeping up that night. The energy of the march pulled me away from myself. All I could think was, “Take pictures, tweet, get this out there.” It seemed like the one thing that I could do that was of any real value. I could bear witness, and try to show people, in real time, just how powerful these moments were.

And they were powerful.

Read more »

Oct 16 2014

Guest Post: From St. Louis, On Peace & Protest by Page May

This post is by Page May who is an organizer with We Charge Genocide and will be part of the youth delegation traveling to Geneva in November 2014. I am so happy to be able to feature Page’s brilliant voice here.

I am still processing my thoughts on the brief time I spent in St. Louis. I was deeply moved by the energy, love, and intensity of the protestors, particularly the many young people leading the march.

photo by Page May (St. Louis, 10/11/14)

photo by Page May (St. Louis, 10/11/14)

After the rally, a White Missourian approached me asking what I thought. We shared enthusiasm for the day’s events but our conversation ended when she said she “only hopes it stays peaceful…that some people have broken windows and started looting…which ruins it for everyone and takes away from the whole thing.” When I returned to Chicago, I tried to stay updated by following #FergusonOctober. I found myself similarly frustrated by the pattern of outrage over the police using such excessive force on “peaceful protestors.”

There is nothing peaceful about having to fight for your people’s lives and nothing surprising about police violence against Black people. This White, liberal, insistence on “peaceful protest” and what qualifies as such is at best misunderstanding and at worst inherently antagonistic to Black struggle.

photo by Page May (St. Louis, 10/11/14)

photo by Page May (St. Louis, 10/11/14)

While processing my thoughts on this, I’ve found myself referring to one of my favorite poems, by Ethan Viets-VanLear- a co-organizer in We Charge Genocide and fellow UN delegate.

And the police of the block that got a vendetta on every Black boy child;
The perpetrators of this fabricated peace we’ve apparently disturbed!
I was born on the gutter
handcuffed on the curb.
I was born in a dungeon,
medicated and shackled,
smothered so I couldn’t speak.

I find so much wisdom here in Ethan’s words. His recognition that what- as well as who/when/where/how- is defined and understood as “peace” is a fabrication that normalizes an anti-black status-quo. Moreover, that the construction of “the peace” is not only exclusionary of Black people, but positioned in fixed opposition to us: We are implicitly (as Black people who exist) and explicitly (as Black people who resist) in disturbance of “the peace.” And as those enlisted to serve and protect “the peace,” the police have always been tasked with keeping Black people in our place- as slaves, criminals, deviants, and dangerous. The police are, as Ethan describes, “the perpetrators of this fabricated peace we’ve apparently disturbed.” They have always been at war with us. Our history in this country is one of captivity and genocide- dungeons and shackles.

photo by Sarah Jane Rhee (St. Louis, 10/11/14)

photo by Sarah Jane Rhee (St. Louis, 10/11/14)

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Oct 13 2014

Guest Post: Visiting Sammy by Liz Alexander

Southern trees bear strange fruit,
Blood on the leaves and blood at the root,
Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze,
Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees.

-Billie Holiday

I approach my first check point before entering the prison. I present my license and inform the guardsmen that I am visiting from out of town. I park my car and join the long line of predominantly Black and Brown women and their children. I recognize familiar faces from the last couple of times I’ve been here and we greet each other with ours eyes and a smile. As I approach the window, I take his inmate number out, ready to recite it on command in order to avoid frustrating the officer behind the glass. Unlike the other women, I have not memorized it yet. In fact, I refuse to do so. Even after eight years. I have made a commitment to maintain his humanity, regardless of the circumstances.

… “ After 18 hours of deliberations, a jury convicted Sammy Cooper, 21, of aggravated manslaughter in the death of 27-year-old Mike Rhodes, of East Orange, and using a steering-wheel lock to strike 14 blows to his head and face. Cooper, who faces 10 to 30 years in state prison, was also convicted of unlawful possession of a weapon late Tuesday in Newark Superior Court….Essex County Assistant Prosecutor Frederick Elflein said a taped police confession the day of the March 17, 2007, incident provided strong enough evidence to make this a clear-cut case. “The jury paid very close attention,” he said. “Even though in the confession (Cooper) said it was an accident and didn’t intend to kill (Rhodes), it was pretty chilling.”

On Wednesday, February 4, 2009 at 7:25pm, The New Jersey Star Ledger published an article, “East Orange man guilty of killing man with steering-wheel lock.” What the article failed to mention is that Sammy Cooper was abandoned by his father after his parents’ divorced when he was six years old; when he was twelve he was falsely incarcerated for a crime he did not commit and was bullied and harassed by the arresting officers. He was later acquitted. What the article failed to mention was that when he was fifteen, his mother died unexpectedly and he, the only one out of his siblings became a ward of the state. What the article failed to mention was that he had a mental illness and up until this incident, he himself was a victim. Is still a victim. No, this does not justify his actions or excuse him from accountability however what I find to be “pretty chilling,” is the lack of space for the acknowledgement of these other truths; the lack of space to be humanized.

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Oct 06 2014

Domestic Violence, Poetry and ‘Giving Name to the Nameless’

First, I love poetry and Nikky Finney is one of my favorite poets. So I was over the moon a few weeks ago when I read her new poem dedicated to Marissa Alexander titled “Flare.” October is domestic violence awareness month and we very much want to keep Marissa in mind. A couple of weeks ago, I emailed Ms. Finney and asked if she would participate in the Chicago Alliance to Free Marissa Alexander’s campaign which is asking people to send video submissions of them reading the poem “Flare” or another poem of their choice. So far, we have received wonderful submissions which you can find here. I asked Ms. Finney if she would participate too. And guess what???? She said yes!!!! So today, I am thrilled to share her video reading of Flare with all of you.

Audre Lorde was right (as usual) when she wrote in the essay “Poetry Is Not a Luxury” that: “Poetry is the way we help give name to the nameless so it can be thought. The farthest horizons of our hopes and fears are cobbled by our poems, carved from the rock experiences of our daily lives.”

I use poems a lot in my teaching and in my work with young people. When young people see something of themselves in a piece of literature, identify with the work, reflect on it, and undergo some emotional experience as a result of that reading, I consider that to be the basis of a successful anti-violence intervention. For years, I have been collecting poems about gender-based violence that I have used with young women (in particular) in various settings. Some of these poems can be found in a poetry guide that I created a few years ago titled “Giving Name to the Nameless: Using Poetry as an Anti-Violence Intervention with Girls.” A PDF of the guide is available at no cost to those interested in a copy. Details are here.

Life comes full circle as one of the poems that I use a lot with young women & girls is Nikky Finney’s “The Girlfriend’s Train.” I included it in the guide and am featuring it below in honor of DV awareness month. As a bonus, I am including some questions that you can use if when you are discussing the poem with girls and young women.

Note: While the guide was created with young women and girls in mind (I have the most experience facilitating poetry circles with them), the information and poems included can certainly be used with young men, trans young people and also with adults.

Read more »

Sep 25 2014

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 1970sHERE (PDF).

Lessons in Self Defense Poster FINAL

Sep 23 2014

Irrational Exuberance: Mass Incarceration is STILL An Epidemic…

I’ve been saying for a while that the rhetoric about the “end of mass incarceration” doesn’t match up with the reality that so many people in the U.S. continue to be locked up. Today, James Kilgore published an article on the topic where I am quoted. It’s worth reading (not because I am quoted but because he raises important points).

Ultimately, the report along with events like those in Ferguson, Missouri, reinforced the concerns of many anti-mass incarceration campaigners that current changes were not digging deep enough to yield long lasting results. Peter Wagner, Director of the Massachusetts-based Prison Policy Initiative, highlighted the need for states “to decide whether the people they are sending to prison really need to be there” and the corresponding issue of deciding which people “currently in prison can go home.” Instead, he lamented, states are continuing to hike “the number of people they send to prison for new offenses and violations of parole and decreasing the number of people they let out.”

Author and activist Ruthie Gilmore, who currently is associate director of the Center for Place, Culture and Politics at CUNY, argued that the BOJ statistics have exposed the shortcomings of “opportunists” who have “blown up real solidarity.” She maintains that moderate reforms have promoted “the delusion that it’s possible to cherry pick some people from the prison machine” rather than undertake a broad restructuring of the communities which have been devastated by mass incarceration. Mariame Kaba, head of Project NIA which practices transformative justice as a foil to youth incarceration in Chicago communities, concurred with Gilmore, stressing that “the rationale for and logic of punishment is unchanged. The targets of our punishment mindset also remain overwhelmingly black and poor.”

Kaba points out that the discourse has altered but policy seems to have lagged behind. “Talk and actions are not the same thing,” she said, “there is a need to move beyond awareness and take steps to address mass incarceration in real ways.”

"Lets not forget that people incarcerated in prison are just a portion of the people under control of the correctional system. There are jails, juvenile prisons, military prisons, immigration detention, Indian Country jails, territorial prisons, civil commitment, plus probation and parole of which there are 3,981,090 adults on probation, and 851,662 adults on parole."

“Lets not forget that people incarcerated in prison are just a portion of the people under control of the correctional system. There are jails, juvenile prisons, military prisons, immigration detention, Indian Country jails, territorial prisons, civil commitment, plus probation and parole of which there are 3,981,090 adults on probation, and 851,662 adults on parole.”

Sep 21 2014

Happy Birthday Marissa!

Last Sunday, I organized a gathering to celebrate Marissa Alexander‘s Birthday. My friend Debbie made a short video that captured some statements of support and solidarity offered to Marissa. You should watch it! It’s profoundly moving.

Don’t forget to support Marissa’s legal defense fund. You can also support her by purchasing items at the Free Marissa Store.