The wonderful Jenna Peters Golden contributed to the terrific Radicalphabet poster project.
What a strange moment we’re in… Prison ‘reform’ is in vogue.
Last week, Buzzfeed published an article citing “bipartisan optimism” about prison reform. This weekend, the New York Times editorialized that out of this dysfunctional Congress “there may come one promising and unexpected achievement: the first major reforms to America’s broken criminal justice system in a generation.” On Monday, it was USA Today’s turn to deliver the ‘good news’ of reform. It appears then that folks in the Beltway and in the media are currently optimistic about criminal legal reform. The optimism has also spread to states like Louisiana, New York and Texas.
“…federal prosecutors already have the discretion to do what Mr. Holder is directing them to do. The trick will be getting them to do it. In other words, actually reducing the number of people subject to outdated and overly harsh mandatory minimums is totally dependent on prosecutors following Mr. Holder’s lead.”
Marijuana legalization for adults is proceeding in Colorado and Washington, with more states considering doing the same. Yet with every action, there is a reaction and last week the House of Representatives passed a bill “to force President Barack Obama to crack down on states that have legalized marijuana in any form.”
Nevertheless, the excitement is palpable about conservative organizations like “Right on Crime.” Since such groups are now willing to publicly criticize the criminal legal system as fiscally unsustainable, some hope that a window for decarceration is open. Books have been published this year suggesting that the era of the “punishment imperative” has ended (in fact that it actually ended in the early 2000s). Several words have been repeated in articles, conferences, media and legislatures across the country: fiscal responsibility, discretion, disproportionate minority contact, mass incarceration and reform.
As someone who has devoted years of her life to the work of first reforming and then later abolishing prisons, one might think that I would be excited about recent developments. In fact, my natural skepticism is now at its peak mainly because I am a student of history. The prison itself was born out of a reform movement and since its inception in the U.S. in the late 18th century, we have been tinkering towards imperfection. With every successive call for ‘reform,’ the prison has remained stubbornly brutal, violent and inhumane. A report titled “Struggle for Justice” published in 1971 put it this way:
“More judges and more ‘experts’ for the courts, improved educational and therapeutic programs in penal institutions, more and better trained personnel at higher salaries, preventive surveillance of predelinquent children, greater use of probation, careful classification of inmates, preventive detention through indeterminate sentences, small ‘cottage’ institutions, halfway houses, removal of broad classes of criminals (such as juveniles) from criminal and ‘nonpunitive’ processes, the use of lay personnel in treatment – all this paraphernalia of the ‘new’ criminology appears over and over in nineteenth-century reformist literature.”
The Future of Mass Incarceration: Punishment in the Proposed Era of Decarceration
by Chez Rumpf, PhD Candidate in Sociology, Loyola University Chicago
Two weeks ago in a speech to the American Bar Association, Attorney General Eric Holder openly critiqued the United States’ “War on Drugs,” admitting it has been a failure and that its unintended consequences have severely harmed individuals, families, and entire communities. Specifically, Holder took issue with mandatory minimum sentencing policies that have contributed greatly to the build-up of the United States’ prison nation. He went so far as to instruct federal prosecutors throughout the United States to no longer pursue mandatory minimum sentences for low-level, nonviolent federal drug charges.
An End to the “War on Drugs” and Mass Incarceration?
Holder’s comments carry a great deal of symbolic importance. It is undeniably noteworthy for the country’s Attorney General to openly challenge and call for a reversal of U.S. crime policies and to acknowledge publicly that mass incarceration is a grave social injustice, in part because of the severe racial disparities that permeate the criminal legal system. It remains to be seen, however, whether the symbolic importance of Holder’s speech will translate to changes in policy and practice. As Kara Dansky recently noted on the ACLU’s blog, federal prosecutors may resist Holder’s instructions based on their own racist beliefs and adherence to “tough on crime” ideology.
Justice for Trayvon… but how? Low End Theory
Prison for George Zimmerman is Not Justice for Trayvon Martin By Paul Blasenheim
Remember: a criminal conviction is not justice November 30 Blog
Restorative Justice for Trayvon Martin by Mikhail Lyubansky
Restorative Justice for Trayvon Martin by Jiva Shanti Manske
Trayvon Martin and Black People For the Carceral State by Prison Culture
Trayvon Martin and Prison Abolition by Chanel (Crunk Feminist Collective)
The Zimmerman Trial Through An Abolitionist Lens by Victoria C
We’re NOT All Trayvon Martin by Victoria Law
What Does #Justice4Trayvon Look Like? by Mychal Denzel Smith
What Would Real Justice For Trayvon Martin Look Like? by Kay Whitlock
Why America Needs Another Kind of Justice? by Phillipe Copeland
CI: Redemption, Transformation & Justice, Part 2
by Kay Whitlock
“I’m against the death penalty on principle,” a colleague said recently. “But when I think of what Ariel Castro did to those women and that kid in Cleveland, I wonder what punishment other than death could possibly suffice.” A friend of mine, normally a gentle soul, was livid: “He ought to be drawn and quartered.”
Not only had Castro kidnapped, held in captivity, raped, and tortured three adult women – Amanda Berry, Michelle Knight, and Gina DeJesus – for periods of 9 to 11 years; Berry bore a child and Castro forcibly impregnated and caused Knight to suffer miscarriages. Prosecutors have said they will add murder (“feticide”) charges.
It’s always like that in the aftermath of both real and purported horrific acts of violence or transgression, the race to retribution and vengeance, incited by cases so chilling, so abhorrent that they evoke in us waves of rage and dread.
And in the midst of those powerful emotions, many of us find ourselves awash in our own violent feelings. It’s the kind of electric current feeling that can too easily turn a crowd of ordinary folks into a group of vigilantes; a paramilitary border patrol; a lynch mob; people who torch synagogues and mosques.
That’s the feeling: “Kill the evil. Destroy it. Erase it.” As if the capacity for terrible violence existed – well, somewhere else. Not in us. Not in mainstream society and its systems. It exists in the archetypally dangerous Them. The Menacing “Other.” And the only thing we can think of to help soothe our fear, our dread is the violent erasure of that which frightens and enrages us.
But most of us couldn’t possibly imagine engaging in mob violence. We stand for justice, not against it, right? Right. And still, many of us will permit our most potent feelings of rage, dread, and fear – often fed by media’s “if it bleeds, it leads” dictum and sensational coverage – to be transmuted into structural forms of violence.
This is also the electric current of emotion that powers crime policy in the United States and that limits mainstream awareness and discussion of its violent impacts. It is what too often permits the criminal legal system to function as mob by proxy.
The horrific violent offender – real or imaginary – is the image that is deployed to stop serious discussion about justice that seeks to redeem and transform rather than to administer brutal punishment.
- It’s the image deployed to justify the mainstream nature of mass incarceration, police shootings of unarmed people of color, long-term solitary confinement, other forms of torture, and the CIA’s covert, extrajudicial use of rendition.
- It’s the image that not only tells us that we need a death penalty, but that prisons are inevitable and that the people in them deserve every form of brutality they receive.
- It is that image that that tells us that prisons create “safety.”
- It is the image that shores up the spiritually corrupting notion that the lives of “criminals,” especially those who have done terrible violence to others, cannot and should not be redeemed.
- It is the image that distorts the justice visions of both the Right and the Left.
So let’s start with the current embodiment of that image.
The harm Ariel Castro has done is incalculable, and he must be held accountable for his actions. The three women and the child he held in abusive captivity deserve every possible form of assistance to mend their shattered, interrupted lives. But could he redeem his own life, even if he never goes free another day in his life? Is redemption even possible?
What might be possible (though never guaranteed) if we learn to transform our own desires for vengeance and retribution? If we confront our own fears more directly, with the intention of not having them control our policies? If we commit to forms of justice that value reclaiming and redeeming the lives of all who have been touched by violence – and that seek to change the social and economic conditions that produce so much violence?
The answer, of course, is in the hands of those who have done harm. Surely it was possible for Charles Ramsey, convicted of three felony domestic violence offenses, who completed his sentences, and also worked to transform himself. Unlike the police, he rightly named and came to the aid of a woman who he suspected was suffering from exactly that kind of violence. Surely it was for Stanley Tookie Williams, whose story of redemption and transformation can be found here. (See Of Charles Ramsey and Stanley Tookie Williams ~Redemption and Transformation, Part 1).
Another glimpse can be found in the terrible violence in South Africa that continued to unfold, even in the dying days of formal apartheid.
Once upon a time, not so long ago, people who identified as feminists cared profoundly about prisoners and prisons. They were at the forefront of advocating prison abolition. Things changed…
I decided to share this great reminder from 1971 in the radical feminist publication “Off Our Backs (PDF)” when it was still a newsletter. Below are some excerpts from the publication that includes an essay about prison abolition.
Women Prisoners Revolt
In support of their brothers at Attica and the 28 demands they made, the women incarcerated at Alderson demonstrated peacefully on Tuesday, September 14. The demonstration developed into a total strike with the women refusing to return to their cottages. Later they met with representatives of the federal prison parole board and presented additional demands including fair wages for work performed in the jail (they presently receive 7 cents an hour); mail privileges; and treatment facilities for addicts. Frustrated by the out-of-hand rejection of their demands and the harsh and adamant attitude of the prison officials, the women rioted. Tear gas was used. They were all then locked into the cottages. Three sisters “escaped” from the rooms to tell the press what had happened.
Unprecedented actions have been taken against the women who presented the demands. Sixty-six of them have been transferred to to a male youth reformatory in Ashland, Ky. Additional male guards (there are usually * 60) now patrol Alderson to enforce “order.” Authorities will not release the names of women who have been transferred or say where they will be sent now.
How Many Lives?
How many years of people’s lives must be lost, hidden, and brutalized, before we see that prisons must be abolished?
How many Atticas, San Quentins and Aldersons will it take till we realize that our society has created these monstrous institutions out of fear — fear of human freedom, cultural differences, loss of capitalist property. The ethics of our society have been distorted by this fear, and are then imposed on non-white people, poor people, young people and women to make survival and experimentation crimes. Why should people in Amerika spend years in jail for such “immoral” acts as smoking grass, getting drunk and singing in the streets, making love or printing “obscenity”, much less for standing by moral decisions not to kill or work for an immoral government? If prisons were really to protect us from psychopaths, murderers and thieves, they would contain Nixon, Rockefeller, Mitchell, Reagan, Agnew, owners of motor industries and oil dynasties, slum land lords, church leaders, and Pentagon officials. Prisons are the extreme domestic example of the racism, sexism, militarism and imperialism that we have been watching for years in Vietnam.
Who needs “rehabilitation” in our society? Not the slaves of ghetto deprivation and drugs pushed by those who wish to dull possible insurgency. Not the men and women who have learned to hustle and survive despite all efforts to destroy them. Not revolutionaries like Angela Davis and George Jackson. The people who need to be “rehabilitated” (if that’s even a correct attitude to have toward any human beings) are those whose minds and bodies have been warped by false value systems that convince them that some people must die so they can live, many must starve so they can eat, all must slave so they can enjoy rest.
“Rehabilitation” is the pacification program of liberalism. Even if we did want to “rehabilitate” sick or deviant minds or bodies, prison would be the last place to achieve it. We need to rid our selves of prisons. They are a danger to society not only because they are schools for “crime” (70% of all “crimes” are committed by ex-convicts) but because they try to erase from our consciousness people who could possibly bring about exciting changes in our social order. We need women like Angela Davis, Erica Huggins and Madame Ngo Ba Thanh among us. We need the Puerto Rican revolutionaries locked inside Alderson.
To abolish prisons we may have to develop “reforms” that carry within them contradictions that will make it hard to achieve them without drastically changing prisons — black prisoners’ unions with collective bargaining power, ending detention before conviction, a national prisoner monitoring system, open door policies, viable alternatives to incarceration. But whatever approaches are used, the goal should be prison abolition. To have no alternative at all would be better than to continue the present reality. And we can’t wait for the ending of racism, sexism and poverty in this country before we begin tearing down the walls. It may be in our own self-interest.
The question on the table: which current feminist publication can you imagine would publish such words?
After years of organizing and struggle in Illinois, TAMMS Supermax is closed. As of last Friday, so too is Dwight Prison. These are tenuous victories to be sure because there are many who continue to believe that prisons must remain a permanent fixture.
There are still some who continue to call for Dwight to remain open citing prison overcrowding. But this is surely not the solution to address overcrowding. Instead the state should develop or expand the use of initiatives such as good time credits or diversion programs. More importantly, we should reduce our prison population while improving public safety by investing in communities to ensure that people do not end up behind bars in the first place.
In communities all across Illinois, women and men are caught in a vicious cycle of arrest, conviction, prison, surveillance and re-arrest, making it nearly impossible to maintain housing, health, jobs, and relationships. Rather than contribute to this tragedy, we must invest in prison alternatives and community-based services, while addressing the root causes of incarceration. We need to rebuild the social infrastructure rather than spend more on a failed prison system. Closing Dwight and other prisons in Illinois will help us to find new resources to invest in these better options.
The shuttering of Dwight follows the closing of two youth prisons: Murphysboro and Joliet. Last month, Vikki Law wrote about the activism that helped lead to the closure of the two youth prisons. Regular readers of this blog know that I have been working for years to close youth prisons in this state. You have read some of my rants over the past couple of years. We finally have our first victories and I have found it difficult to articulate my feelings. I am overcome.
So many people have had a hand in these victories but I want to specifically single out my friends and allies at TAMMS YEAR 10. For over a decade now, this dedicated group of organizers, educators, activists, family and community members has been calling for the closure of the torture chamber formerly known as TAMMS Supermax. They organized direct actions, lobbied legislators, hosted countless workshops, created art, wrote letters and so much more. Most importantly, they were a voice for those who didn’t have a public one: the men who were locked up at TAMMS.
Prison destroys lives. This is a fact. I am thinking today of James who spent time at IYC-Joliet and came out scarred and damaged seemingly beyond repair. I am thinking of another young man who told me that IYC-Joliet was a living hell for him.
There are still about 50,000 adults and nearly 1,000 youth locked up in prisons across Illinois. I know that closing four prisons is only one part of a long struggle to decarcerate Illinois. All of the people who are still locked up today in prisons need our advocacy. We must and will continue to press for their freedom. We have some encouragement in our work. We know that it is possible to close prisons in Illinois. We must build on these victories and remain in the fight for the long haul. One of my favorite poets, Gwendolyn Brooks, is someone I always turn to when words fail me. So today I rely once more on her wise words:
Say to them,
say to the down-keepers,
“Even if you are not ready for day
it cannot always be night.”
You will be right.
For that is the hard home-run.
Live not for the battles won.
Live not for the end-of-the-song.
Live in the along.
“Speech to the Young, Speech to the Progress-Toward (Among Them Nora and Henry III)”
by Gwendolyn Brooks
La Lucha Continua! La Lucha Continua!
It’s Women’s History Month and my friends are pretty great… My friend, Katy, made this coloring page illustration of Audre Lorde and the PIC. Feel free to copy and share with the young/older people in your lives. You can download the PDF HERE.
My friends Lewis Wallace and Micah Bazant have updated their original Miklat, Miklat zine and I am happy to share the new version HERE (PDF). I am incredibly grateful to Lewis and Micah for creating this excellent resource. I am always asked by folks to “define” transformative justice. I mostly resist those efforts.
I have offered a page of some resources for those who want to explore the concept of transformative justice. I have also wrestled quite a bit on this blog with the question of how transformative and restorative justice look in practice. I will continue to do so here while still resisting the urge to offer an definitive answers (since I don’t think that there are any because TJ is so situational).
If you have been considering the concept of transformative justice in your own life and work and have developed your own resources (reading lists, zines, essays), please do share them with me. I would be happy to post them on the blog so that others can learn from your experiences.
Once again, you can download the updated zine HERE (PDF).