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.

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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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!

May 18 2011

Hail Mary: “Cracking Up” in Prison

I have written in the past about the stigma of mental illness among young black men through the lens of DMX’s struggles. I want to return to that idea again today. A young man who I visited in jail last week spoke to me of feeling like he was “cracking up.” Those were his words “cracking up.”

I think that one of the most neglected aspects of the incarceration experience is the mental torture that many prisoners experience while locked up. I have not read a lot of prose that speaks to this reality. However, I have heard this idea expressed in some rap music over the years. I am particularly thinking of the song “Hail Mary” which was posthumously released by Tupac. Below are some of the relevant passages:

Penitentiaries is packed with promise makers
Never realize the precious time the bitch niggaz is wastin’
Institutionalized I lived my life a product made to crumble
But too hardened for a smile, we’re too crazy to be humble,
we ballin’, catch me father please, cause I’m fallin’

In the liquor store, that’s the Hennessee I hear ya callin’,
Can I get some more? Hail ’til I reach Hell, I ain’t scared
Mama checkin’ in my bedroom; I ain’t there
I got a head with no screws in it, what can I do
One life to live but I got nothing to lose, just me and you

On a one way trip to prison, sellin’ drugs
We all wrapped up in this livin’ life as thugs
To my homeboys in Quentin Max, doin’ they bid
Raise hell to this real shit, and feel this
When they turn out the lights, I’ll be down in the dark
Thuggin eternal through my heart, now Hail Mary, nigga

The video for the song focuses on revenge but it also captures the sense of someone going out of his mind as he is locked up.

While many (including me) have written about the fact that prisons have become warehouses for the already mentally ill. Much less is written about the fact that prison can precipitate depression and mental illness in people who were not previously ill. This is an area that deserves much more attention.

I want to end with a spoken word piece called “My Mind’s Playin’ Bricks On Me” that I have previously shared on this blog. It comes from a young man who participated in the Free Write Jails Arts and Literacy Program at the Cook County Juvenile Temporary Detention Center. Listen to his words (MP3) which I think movingly convey the mental strain of being incarcerated. I don’t know if that poem is inspired by the Geto Boys’ searing portrayal of a man descending into the depths of mental illness in their song “My Mind’s Playing Tricks on Me” but it’s worth sharing that song here too.

Mar 29 2011

Resisting the PIC in Words and Images…

For over a year now, I have been immersed in a great project that I have written about on this blog. The Cradle to Prison Pipeline Comic Arts Zine Project brought together three local organizations to create a series of graphic novels or zines about juvenile justice related issues. On a separate track, the Chicago PIC Teaching Collective has also been collaborating with our friend, the talented Billy Dee, to create an illustrated zine about the PIC. Finally, everything is coming together as we prepare to send each of these publications to the printer next week. I am not overstating it when I say that each publication is superb [which I had nothing to do with].

I am so excited to be able to share the final products with all of you in May 2011. We will have a zine release party on May 12th at the Jane Addams Hull House Museum. I hope that those who live in Chicago will join us as it will be the only opportunity for people to receive hard copies of the full set of 5 zines. We have already allocated all of our print run to local schools and community-based organizations. If you live outside of Chicago, not to worry you will be able to download PDF copies of the zines online. We hope that everyone who gets a copy of the zines uses it to raise awareness about the PIC and to organize to dismantle this system.

I have just seen the final draft of the PIC Is zine illustrated and designed by Billy today. It brought tears to my eyes. It is just that affecting and mind-blowing. I can’t wait to share all of the zines in May. In the meantime, here is just one image with text from the PIC Is zine.

It may be hard to decipher because I am limited in terms of how large the image can be but the words read: “The Prison Industrial Complex warehouses hundreds of thousands of mentally ill people who have been denied appropriate health care on the outside.”

Note: Dovetailing with my earlier post about preaching to our choirs… These publications will be our choir’s offering to the broader movement. They may not resonate with everyone else’s choir but we will put them out into the world as our contribution and invite any others who might find them useful to sing from them too (using their own improvised riffs of course)…

Mar 10 2011

Poem of the Day: Hard Rock Returns to Prison From the Hospital for the Criminal Insane by Etheridge Knight

Hard Rock Returns to Prison from the Hospital for the Criminal Insane
by Etheridge Knight

Hard Rock / was / “known not to take no shit
From nobody,” and he had the scars to prove it:
Split purple lips, lumbed ears, welts above
His yellow eyes, and one long scar that cut
Across his temple and plowed through a thick
Canopy of kinky hair.

The WORD / was / that Hard Rock wasn’t a mean nigger
Anymore, that the doctors had bored a hole in his head,
Cut out part of his brain, and shot electricity
Through the rest. When they brought Hard Rock back,
Handcuffed and chained, he was turned loose,
Like a freshly gelded stallion, to try his new status.
And we all waited and watched, like a herd of sheep,
To see if the WORD was true.

As we waited we wrapped ourselves in the cloak
Of his exploits: “Man, the last time, it took eight
Screws to put him in the Hole.” “Yeah, remember when he
Smacked the captain with his dinner tray?” “He set
The record for time in the Hole—67 straight days!”
“Ol Hard Rock! man, that’s one crazy nigger.”
And then the jewel of a myth that Hard Rock had once bit
A screw on the thumb and poisoned him with syphilitic spit.

The testing came, to see if Hard Rock was really tame.
A hillbilly called him a black son of a bitch
And didn’t lose his teeth, a screw who knew Hard Rock
From before shook him down and barked in his face.
And Hard Rock did nothing. Just grinned and looked silly,
His eyes empty like knot holes in a fence.

And even after we discovered that it took Hard Rock
Exactly 3 minutes to tell you his first name,
We told ourselves that he had just wised up,
Was being cool; but we could not fool ourselves for long,
And we turned away, our eyes on the ground. Crushed.
He had been our Destroyer, the doer of things
We dreamed of doing but could not bring ourselves to do,
The fears of years, like a biting whip,
Had cut deep bloody grooves
Across our backs.

“Hard Rock Returns to Prison from the Hospital for the Criminal Insane” from The Essential Etheridge Knight, by Etheridge Knight, © 1986.

Feb 14 2011

Any Contact with the Criminal Legal System Increases Suicide Risk…

(h/t to my friend Gary for this information)

Interaction with the criminal justice system, even if there is no guilty verdict, may be an independent risk factor for suicide, researchers report. A study that included more than 27,000 suicides found that odds of suicide were greater after contact with the criminal justice system for both men and women. The association was true even when the cases resulted in not guilty verdicts or sentences without jail time, the researchers report in the Archives of General Psychiatry.

Suicide was particularly likely for individuals with recent or frequent contact with the justice system, or for violent offenders. (Medpage Today, 2/07/11)

Oct 20 2010

Decarcerate the Mentally Ill…

I have previously written about the criminality of warehousing the mentally ill in jails and prisons.

Well yesterday the National Alliance on Mental Illness forcefully made the case that people with mental illness do not belong in jails and prisons.

Here are some facts that the Alliance relays:

* About two million people with serious mental illness are booked into local jails each year. About 30 percent of female and 15 percent of male inmates in local jails have serious mental illness such as schizophrenia or bipolar disorder. The majority of arrests are for non-violent offenses such as disturbing public order or property offenses. Many have been homeless.

* Seventy percent of youth in the juvenile justice system also experience mental health disorders, with 20 percent experiencing disorders so severe that their ability to function is significantly impaired.

* In prisons, almost 25 percent of inmates live with serious mental illness, but their conditions are often under-treated—or not treated at all. Harsh conditions, including isolation and noise, can “push them over the edge” into acute psychosis. An estimated 70,000 prisoners suffer from psychosis on any given day.

* Fifty percent of people with mental illness who have previously been in prison are rearrested and returned to prison not because they have committed new offenses, but because they have been able to comply with conditions of probation or parole—often because of mental illness.

* In prison, people with mental illness often lose access to Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security benefits. Even when benefits can be restored upon release, reapplying for can be time-consuming and complex. Without case management and community assistance, individuals with mental illness are at risk of requiring costly emergency medical services or ending up back in prison.

* Based on a comparison of two programs in Illinois and New York, between approximately $20,000 and $40,000 per persons can be saved by providing the mental health care than putting a person in jail.

These are staggering facts that underscore the inhumanity of the prison industrial complex. The Alliance also offers state by state numbers of mentally ill people in prisons (remember that this EXCLUDES jails which as we know have become are biggest mental health institutions).

Adults with Mental Illness in Prison by State; rounded to 100 (excludes local jails)

Alabama 7,100
Alaska 700
Arizona 8,900
Arkansas 3,500
California 41,400
Colorado 5,600
Connecticut 3,400
Delaware 1,000
District of Columbia N/A
Florida 24,600
Georgia 12,600
Hawaii 1,000
Idaho 1,700
Illinois 10,900
Indiana 6,800
Iowa 2,100
Kansas 2,000
Kentucky 5,100
Louisiana 9,100
Maine 500
Maryland 5,500
Massachusetts 2,400
Michigan 11,700
Minnesota 2,300
Mississippi 5,200
Missouri 7,200
Montana 900
Nebraska 1,100
Nevada 3,100
New Hampshire 700
New Jersey 6,200
New Mexico 1,500
New York 14,400
North Carolina 8,200
North Dakota 300
Ohio 12,400
Oklahoma 5,800
Oregon 3,400
Pennsylvania 11,800
Rhode Island 600
South Carolina 5,600
South Dakota 800
Tennessee 6,500
Texas 37,700
Utah 1,500
Vermont 400
Virginia 9,200
Washington 4,300
West Virginia 1,400
Wisconsin 5,100
Wyoming 500