Mar 25 2014

“If You Take Our Clinics, We Will Die…”

Last month, Sheriff Tom Dart who oversees the Cook County Jail tweeted the following:

Earlier this month, he (or his office) tweeted:

Both of these tweets illustrate the fact that jails have become warehouses for the mentally ill.

To dramatize this reality while advocating for the reinstatement of community-based mental health clinics, members of the Chicago Mental Heath Movement organized a vigil at Cook County Jail yesterday. In 2012, Rahm Emanuel closed 6 of 12 Chicago public mental health clinics. The Mental Health Movement fought valiantly to prevent those closures and has been fighting ever since to re-open them.

My friend Sarah Jane Rhee documented the vigil and below are some of her photographs.

photo by Sarah Jane Rhee (3/24/14)

photo by Sarah Jane Rhee (3/24/14)

photo by Sarah Jane Rhee (3/24/14)

photo by Sarah Jane Rhee (3/24/14)

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Mar 23 2014

Action Needed: Mental Health Vigil at Cook County Jail

My friends at Southside Together Organizing for Power continue their tireless work through the Mental Health Movement Campaign. I can’t attend on Monday but I hope that many others will join with them at this vigil.


On a related note, I encourage everyone to read this post by Melanie Newport that raises what I think are some critical questions about how we center the mentally ill while advocating for jail reform. Also, I’ve written many times about the criminality & immorality of warehousing mentally ill people in jails and prisons.

Mar 25 2013

Radio Stories About Prisons…

I love radio. In fact, I prefer listening to the radio than watching television. Over the years some of the best reporting about the prison industrial complex has taken place in radio. Below is a list of some excellent radio stories about prisons that I wanted to share:

Jailing the Mentally Ill
Produced by American RadioWorks.

According to the 1880 United States Census, 99% of the nation’s “insane persons” lived at home or in asylums. Only a few hundred were in jail. That was the practice in the U.S. for the next century: Mentally ill people who couldn’t cope on their own were confined in institutions. Most never had the chance to live freely in society—or to get in trouble there.

That has changed. Last year the U.S. Justice Department said 280,000 people with serious mental illnesses were in jail or prison—more than four times the number in state mental hospitals. American RadioWorks explores why.

Prison Diaries

Prison Diaries takes place inside two correctional facilities: Polk Youth Institution in Butner, NC and the Rhode Island Training School (for juveniles) in Cranston, RI. More than 245 hours of raw tape have been edited into five half-hour documentaries, produced by Joe Richman and Wendy Dorr of Radio Diaries.

Tossing Away the Keys
Recorded in Angola, Louisianna.
Premiered April 29, 1990, on Weekend All Things Considered.

The Louisiana State Penitentiary, Angola Prison, is a sprawling old plantation on the Mississippi River. It was named, long ago, for the birthplace of the slaves who were brought here to work the land.

Now, Angola holds more than five-thousand prisoners, mostly African Americans. It still has the look of another time: long straight lines of black men march to work along the levees with shovels over their shoulders. They are trailed by guards on horseback, shotguns resting in their laps.

It used to be that a life sentence in Louisiana meant a maximum of ten years and six months behind bars. But, in the 1970s, the state’s politicians changed the definition. A life sentence in Louisiana now means just that. Unless they’re pardoned by the Governor, inmates today know they will never again see the outside world — that they will die inside Angola prison. Tossing Away the Keys is their story.

Witness to an Execution
Producer: David Isay with Wilbert Rideau and Ron Wikberg / Mix engineer: Anna Maria deFrietas / Photograph by Harvey Wang.
Premiered October 20, 2000, on All Things Considered.

Witness to an Execution tells the stories of the men and women involved with the execution of deathrow inmates at the Walls Unit in Huntsville, Texas. Narrated by Warden Jim Willett, who oversees all Texas executions, Witness to an Execution documents, in minute-by-minute detail, the process of carrying out an execution by lethal injection. Most of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice employees interviewed have witnessed over one hundred inmates be put to death. One-third of all executions in the US have taken place in Texas, since the death penalty was reinstated in 1977.

The voices in Witness to an Execution tell a rare story. Major Kenneth Dean, a member of the “tie-down” team, describes the act of walking an inmate from his cell to the death chamber. Jim Brazzil, a death house chaplain who has witnessed 114 executions, remembers inmates’ last words to him. Former corrections officer Fred Allen discusses his own mental breakdown, caused, he says, by participating in one too many executions.

Witness to an Execution won a Peabody Award in 2000.

Producers: Stacy Abramson and David Isay / Production Assistant: David Miller / Narrator: Jim Willett / Editor: Gary Covino / Supervising engineer: Caryl Wheeler / Music: Bob Mellman / Music Coordinator: Henry Sapoznik / Executive Producer for All Things Considered: Ellen Weiss / Special thanks to: Larry Fitzgerald, and the Texas Department of Criminal Justice / Photography: Andrew Lichtenstein/Open Society Institute. / Funding provided by the Rockefeller Foundation, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the Open Society Institute.

Feb 16 2013


View more videos at:

Dec 21 2012

Doing Time During the Holidays…

It’s that time of year again. I am writing cards for several prisoners. I’ve shared my feelings about the holidays & prisoners here before…

One of my former students spent several years locked up. I used to write him regularly and by his 5th year in prison, mine were the only letters that he received. He told me that they became his lifeline. He told me the letters helped him remember that he was still “human.” When he shared those words with me, I felt a huge weight land on my shoulders. For a few weeks, I was paralyzed and unable to write more letters. I don’t know what was wrong with me but I just got scared. Thankfully, I snapped out of my funk. Writing is such a small thing. It was something that I could easily afford to do. I felt relieved to have moved past the paralysis.

Below is an image of a cell at the Cook County Juvenile Temporary Detention Center (JTDC). It is a photograph by Richard Ross for his seering Juvenile-In-Justice project. I have and do spend a lot of time at the JTDC. My organization incubates a project called Girl Talk there. I have been in those cells. I know the young people who are locked up there. I hate to think of them there at all (and especially during this time of year). Christopher spent time locked up at JTDC when he was 13 years old. You can hear him talk about his experience here (note: when he references the “Audy Home” he means the JTDC).

by Richard Ross (for Juvenile-In-Justice)

by Richard Ross (for Juvenile-In-Justice)

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Jun 09 2012

For Lauryn Hill & Some Black Women…

I didn’t think that I would have occasion to write about Lauryn Hill on this blog. Yet I was sad to hear the news that Hill has been charged for not filing taxes on her income for three years. It is a true tragedy that she is likely to face a significant amount of time in prison in addition to having to pay a hefty fine. Behind bars, she would be part of the fastest growing group of prisoners in America: black women. I sincerely hope that it doesn’t come to that.

Over the past few years, when I have thought of Hill, a Carolyn Rogers poem has been the accompanying soundtrack. The poem is titled “Poem for Some Black Women (1981).”

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Jun 03 2012

A Dispatch from Chicago’s Economic Wastelands…

This week has SUCKED on so many levels that it is difficult to know where to even begin… I will limit myself to one particular illustration of how terrible of a week it truly was. I am so glad that it is Sunday and that the start of a new week is just around the corner.

At around 11 p.m. on Tuesday night, I received a panicked call from the grandmother of a young man (I’ll call him George) who I first met in mid-2010. George was referred to me by a teacher friend because he had been recently released from prison and needed some support. Honestly, what he desperately needed (like millions of others) was a job. There were no jobs in sight. My friend had been his teacher in the 8th grade and he had come by the school where she still works asking for her help. She was honestly very surprised that he remembered her after all of these years. This underscores the truth of the famous quote by Henry Adams: “A teacher affects eternity; he can never tell where his influence ends.”

At 21, George had spent the better part of 8 years cycling in and out of first juvenile detention, then youth prison, and finally adult prison. He was somehow able to pass his GED examination in between stints behind bars. This gives you a sense of how bright he is. After much stress and some begging, we were able to find him a job at a local retailer. He has been working there since last June. Today he is 23 years old, has a 1 year old daughter and a lovely girlfriend.

So I rushed over to Grandma’s apartment (located on the West side of Chicago). By the time I arrived, it was after midnight. The young man, who I will call George, had locked himself in his bedroom with his girlfriend and daughter, he had a gun and was threatening to kill both of them and then himself. [Honestly, if I were not actually living my life, I wouldn’t believe half of the situations that I find myself involved in. Most of the individuals who I work with are in some form of crisis and I don’t write about 90% of what happens on a daily basis]. The apartment was packed with random family members and some neighbors. Everyone was taking turns shouting through the locked door telling him to release his daughter and girlfriend. I tried to intervene by asking people to stop yelling suggesting that this was not helping the situation but was summarily ignored. At around 1:30 am, George finally allowed his girlfriend and daughter to safely leave the room. He quickly slammed the door and locked himself in the room again. Needless to say that both the girlfriend and the baby were inconsolable. The girlfriend insisted that he would never have harmed her or their daughter. And I believe her. She explained that on Monday, he had received a notice that he would be laid off from his retail job. HE. JUST. LOST. IT.

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Nov 26 2011

Officer Friendly Has Never Lived Here: Responses to Recent OWS-Related Police Violence

A few days ago Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote the following in a post titled “The Cops We Deserve:”

“Not to diminish what happened at UC Davis, but it’s worth considering what happens in poor neighborhoods and prisons, far from the cameras. I’m not saying that to diminish this video in any way. But I’d like people to see this a[s] part of a broad systemic attitude we’ve adopted as a country toward law enforcement. There’s a direct line from this officer invoking his privilege to brutalize these students, and an officer invoking his privilege to detain Henry Louis Gates for sassing him.”

I thought that this was a characteristically respectful and non-alienating way to remind folks that for marginalized people, police violence is not a new phenomenon. Over the past few weeks as incidents of violent police responses to the Occupy Movement have become more visible, I have heard some friends (all people of color) sarcastically suggest that some white, relatively privileged folks are now discovering police brutality for the first time. Kind of in the way that Columbus “discovered” Native Americans; They had always been here.

Regular readers of this blog know that I write very often about policing and state violence. I believe that it is impossible to understand the Prison Industrial Complex without probing the role of policing. Over a year ago, I wrote a post titled “Officer Friendly Doesn't Live Here: Policing Urban Youth.” The main point I made was that:

“One of the most consistent themes that I hear from the young people who I work with is that they feel under siege by the police in their neighborhoods. They are consistently harassed and hassled for no reason other than their youth and skin color.”

So for many black people, the current response to the police violence associated with the Occupy Movement runs the gamut from indifference to eye-rolling and in some instances exasperation and anger. This past week, I came across a post written by Black Canseco titled “Open Letter to #OWS: 'Oh, so NOW Police Brutality matters?!'” which encapsulates the exasperated and angry response. The letter opens this way:

Dear Occupy Wall Street:

Police brutality in America did not begin with you. It’s older than you, older than your encampments and older than your sudden awareness of it.

As one of the 99% you claim to champion, I for example, have seen police brutality firsthand throughout my childhood and my adult life right on to this day. As an African American male I have seen what happens when you occupy black skin in the presence of a police officer. I’ve buried friends who were shot by police despite having broken no laws. I’ve seen police batons and fists, backs of squad cars and squad carhoods used as weapons—not because I or my fellow African Americans were protesting or making any public statements, but simply because we were breathing and existing outside our homes.

It’s hard to know what to say to this, isn’t it? It feels like a conversation ender. Right away those who are reading his open letter and sympathize with OWS might feel put on the defensive. Yet it is impossible not to feel the pain that permeates the entire letter in this opening paragraph. This cannot and should not be minimized. We should not look away because of the anger expressed.

I have analogized police violence to domestic terrorism . I think that this concept applies perfectly. Police violence takes a physical, emotional, and spiritual toll on its targets. The routine “Stop and Frisk” policies that mostly target young black men in our cities lead to urban trauma that is neglected and underappreciated. So I take these things very seriously.

However for me, the appropriate response is not to berate some white people for only just now recognizing the endemic violence and brutality of policing in America but rather to enlist them as allies in transforming this system. This means that we have to engage these folks in popular education about the issue of policing and violence so that they can become steeped in a structural analysis of the problem.

Katheryn K. Russell (2000) cautions us against “the dismissal of police violence as a Black thing.” I think that this is basically right. Rather than locating the problem of police brutality as strictly in the purview of black men, we must underscore how aggressive police tactics harm all of us. The truth is that while Black men suffer disproportionately at the hands of police, young women of color, trans folks, and others are also routinely harassed by law enforcement. Only by making visible all of the forms of violent policing will we be able to build a movement for transformative justice. If it remains an issue that people view as only impacting black people in particular, then our possibility for social change is going to be very limited.

We have historical precedent for this. In much the same way that I believe that white people should talk to white people about race and racism; I also believe that if white people talked to other white people about police violence, we would be further along in helping to end it. One example of this can be found in a powerful letter titled “Feeling for the Edge of Your Imagination: finding ways not to call the police” that I have previously cited. I incorporated some parts of this letter in a post that I wrote titled “Yes, In Fact, the Cops Are in My Head.” The author specifically addresses the letter to other privileged people with whom she identifies:

All of you, but especially those of you who, like myself and the two people mentioned above, are white and/or grew up middle class and/or didn’t grow up in NYC. I’m writing to you, also, if you’ve smiled your way out of a speeding ticket, if you’ve been most afraid of cops at mass protests, or if you generally feel safer when you see police around. If these things are true for you, it’s possible that you are more distanced from the real impact of policing on low-income communities of color. But whether people in your life experience those impacts regularly or not, whether you’ve spent a night in jail, done work to support political prisoners, or haven’t thought much about police brutality since Sean Bell… if you hold a commitment to making the world a better place, I’m writing to you, because there’s work to be done.”

I imagine that the author of this letter might be a supporter of the Occupy Movement (but maybe not). Frankly if we are to win, we need more white people who want to join in the movement to dismantle the PIC and who want to work for alternatives to policing. So while I have empathy for Black Canseco’s exasperation and anger, I also want to find constructive ways to engage those who are just learning about police violence through the experience in the Occupy Movement. We need to figure out better ways to talk across our differences without alienating each other. It’s going to take a movement of millions to transform justice.

Nov 25 2011

Dumb Policies #4: Forbidding Youth Prisoners From Wearing Clothing in Cells

I’ve written before about prison clothing as an embodiment of punishment and a marker of criminality. I have also brought attention to the ways that prisons can use clothing to humiliate inmates.

I came across an article this week about a juvenile detention facility in Kane County, IL which was recently reprimanded for forbidding youth from wearing clothing in their cells:

The Illinois Department of Juvenile Justice conducted an inspection of the Kane County Juvenile Detention Center Oct. 3. Inspectors found juvenile detainees were forced to remove all their clothes except undergarments whenever they were returned to their rooms.

Detention and Audit Services Administrator Robert C. Catchings said stripping the juveniles of their clothes “tests the boundaries of corporal punishment” in a letter accompanying the report. “The Illinois Department of Juvenile Justice does not endorse this practice, and subsequently, recommend that this practice cease immediately.”

Just think of the indignity that these young people experienced in having to remove their clothing every time they entered their cells. Why did administrators institute this policy? The answer is below:

Rick Anselme, superintendent of Kane’s facility, said juveniles have been allowed to wear their full detention center uniforms while in their rooms since Nov. 7. He said having the youths wear only undergarments in their rooms was created to keep them from using their clothes to harm themselves.

At the time the policy was created, Anselme said, there had been instances of juveniles either threatening to commit suicide or actually harming themselves in their rooms.

Once again, here is an example of the prison industrial complex focusing on disappearing the problems that lead to incarceration. Instead of seeking to address the obvious mental health issues that would lead a young person to attempt suicide, the system creates a one-size fits-all policy which further punishes young people. Absolutely mindless…

May 27 2011

Prisons Still Do Not Work: DMX Should Be Released Today…

Regular readers know that though I am slightly obsessed with T.I., my number 1 obsession is DMX. I have written about his trials and tribulations here and here. The reason for my concern about DMX is because I believe that he is one of the poster children illustrating the dysfunction and inhumanity of the PIC.

I just read today that DMX is scheduled to be released from prison this summer.

Here are some salient facts:
1. DMX’s latest incarceration experience is based on a violation of the terms of his probation. This is not surprising because many, many former prisoners end up re-incarcerated for technical violations.

2. “Not long after his incarceration, the judge in the case also ruled that X may suffer from bi-polar disorder, which resulted in him being moved to the Flamenco Mental Health unit section of the facility.” So we learn that DMX is mentally ill. Is this a shock to anyone who has followed any part of this man’s career? He is OBVIOUSLY ill and needs to be treated and NOT locked up.

3. “Once a major staple in the hip-hop game, the former member of the Ruff Ryders has experienced a steep fall from grace, which has been rooted around his admitted drug addiction. Over the past few years, the 40-year-old has been incarcerated a total of 13 times for various offenses.” So DMX is also a drug addict. Again, no surprise to anyone. He is another of the millions of casualties of our stupid and destructive so-called “War on Drugs.” He has been criminalized for his drug use and this is awful.

I am going to start printing up “FREE DMX” t-shirts. Enough already!