Feb 23 2015

Guest Post: Alternatives to Incarceration: Be Careful What You Wish For

I am grateful to Dr. Susan Sered for allowing me to re-publish this post from her blog. Dr. Sered is a well-respected sociologist and her latest book is titled “Can’t Catch a Break Gender, Jail, Drugs, and the Limits of Personal Responsibility.” The book is currently sitting in my TO READ pile and I can’t wait to get to it soon.

As awareness is growing of the financial and human costs associated with mass incarceration, we’re hearing talk from politicians on both sides of the aisle (and, believe it or not, even from the Koch Brothers) about the need for “alternatives to incarceration” (ATIs).

The term “alternatives to incarceration” takes for granted that we are talking about ways to handle criminals who otherwise would need to be incarcerated — that incarceration is a reasonable baseline against which to measure “alternatives.” In light of the over-representation of Americans of color and low-income Americans in jails and prisons, however, it’s necessary to be careful about any sort of presumption of correlation between criminality and incarceration. In fact, about a third of people locked up in the US are awaiting trial; that is, they have not been convicted of a crime. Another third are locked up because they violated the terms of probation or parole; that is; the “criminal” act was not sufficiently egregious to require imprisonment but a subsequent action – often simply not showing up for a meeting with a parole or probation officer, or failing to keep up restitution payments or money owed in court fees – was the reason for incarceration. And 97% of federal and state criminal prosecutions are resolved by plea bargain – often accepted by defendants out of fear that if they don’t accept the deal they will be locked up even longer — rather than by trial.

Given these numbers, it’s easier to make a case for abolition than for “alternatives to incarceration.” But that is not the direction in which public discourse seems to be moving. To the contrary, the increasingly popular sentiment goes something like this: A whole lot of people sitting in jails and prisons are mentally ill; they are drug users who need treatment more than they need punishment. Echoing this sentiment, Los Angeles County – the US county with the largest number of incarcerated people – recently approved a $1.9 billion proposal to tear down Men’s Central Jail and construct a 4,885-bed “Consolidated Correctional Treatment Facility”. And while “treatment” certainly sounds beneficial, the content of that treatment has yet to be spelled out.

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Over the past five years I followed a cohort of Massachusetts women who cycle in and out of prison as well as a variety of treatment programs. All of the women, at some point in their lives, have been diagnosed with a psychiatric disorder (most commonly substance abuse, bipolar disorder, PTSD). Overall, these twenty-six women spent far more time in treatment than in correctional settings. Yet, at the end of five years only three women had settled into reasonably secure housing, stable employment and long-term desistance from substance abuse.

Typically, treatment programs include some combination of pharmaceutical, twelve-step and psychotherapeutic components. Most of the women I have come to know are prescribed mind-boggling assortments of psychotropic medication, some of which make them, as Elizabeth (a white woman in her early forties, Elizabeth was homeless for a decade) used to say, into “a space shot” who shuffles around in a daze that puts her at elevated risk for being robbed or assaulted. Whether anti-anxiety, anti-depression or anti-psychotic drugs, these medications are not intended to cure the underlying problems such as sexual assault and homelessness that lead to anxiety, depression and substance abuse. Rather, psychotropic medications are prescribed in order to manage the individual’s response those problems.

While not all treatment programs prescribe psychotropic medication, virtually all incorporate – explicitly or implicitly — twelve step ideology and practices. Treatment facilities tend to be plastered with twelve step slogans such as “Let Go and Let God” and “Cultivate an attitude of gratitude,” and formal AA/NA meetings typically are part of the treatment regime. With emphasis on admitting one’s powerlessness (Step 1) and making moral inventories of one’s faults (Step 4), these programs do not seem to offer the women I have come to know a meaningful script for re-organizing their lives. When I visited Joy, who has been homeless for nearly fifteen years and nearly died as a consequence of a brutal sexual assault, several weeks into her stay in a treatment facility she enthusiastically explained to me that, “I’m learning that my problems are in my head.” Unfortunately, her problems also were in the real world: Less than a year later she was back on the streets where she was sexually accosted by a police officer who then arrested her for solicitation.

Most treatment programs in Massachusetts also include some sort of psychotherapy, and nearly all of the women I know have been treated by multiple therapists over the years, sometimes beginning in adolescence or even childhood. With its focus on the individual psyche, psychotherapy addresses personal flaws such as poor impulse control, allowing oneself to be a victim, and struggles to “get over” past traumas. But as Elizabeth explains, “I don’t need to talk about my problems. I need a place to live so that I won’t be scared all of the time.” This does not mean that therapy is useless; it does mean that “talk is cheap” without the material conditions that permit women like Elizabeth and Joy to build a secure life.

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There is little evidence pointing to long-term success for any particular drug treatment modality. Studies showing positive outcomes typically fail to track program participants for long enough time to establish meaningful rates of success, look only at participants who completed the program, fail to control for confounding variables, or look at very small numbers of participants from the start. The absence of evidence for the success of treatment programs is especially glaring when the treatment is coerced or carried out in a coercive situation. It may be tempting to believe that even if treatment doesn’t help everyone, at least it doesn’t hurt. Yet, as we’ve learned from the past — from efforts to“cure” homosexuality to the tranquilizers (“mother’s little helper“) of the 1960s,  when a patient’s ideas or behaviors challenge social hierarchies of race, gender, sexual orientation or class, treatment that is ostensibly for the patient’s own good may be used to bring the “deviant” individual back into line. As those of us old enough to remember Jack Nicholson’s performance in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest can attest, therapeutic interventions aimed at “getting inside” the patient’s head can carry heavy costs indeed.

The murky line between punishment and treatment has not been lost on some of the corporations involved in the prison industry. Correctional Healthcare Companies, for example, has expanded beyond providing medical services to prisons and now offers services for the “full spectrum” of “offenders” lives: “pre-custody, in custody, and post-custody,” a timeline that perhaps says more than the company intended about American understandings of criminality.

Feb 15 2015

‘We Must Love Each Other:’ Lessons in Struggle and Justice from Chicago

The national protests catalyzed by the killing of Mike Brown in Ferguson last August continue even as many (including the mainstream media) have moved on. Some critics have suggested that the uprisings/rebellions are leaderless, lack concrete demands and/or are without clear strategy. Each of these critiques is easily refuted so I won’t concern myself with them here.

In Chicago, many have used the energy and opening created by these ongoing protests to re-animate existing long-term anti-police violence campaigns. On Saturday afternoon, hundreds of people gathered at the Chicago Temple to show our love for police torture survivors on the day after Jon Burge was released from house arrest.

photo by Sarah Jane Rhee (2/14/15 @ Chicago Temple)

photo by Sarah Jane Rhee (2/14/15 @ Chicago Temple)

The gathering was billed as a people’s hearing and rally in support of a reparations ordinance currently stalled in the Chicago City Council. Politicians, faith leaders, and community activists spoke at the event. Poets exhorted the crowd. But the most impactful, poignant and powerful words came from the Burge torture survivors themselves.

Burge Torture Survivor Darrell Cannon (photo by Sarah Jane Rhee, 2/14/15)

Burge Torture Survivor Darrell Cannon (photo by Sarah Jane Rhee, 2/14/15)

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Feb 03 2015

Talking to Kids About Incarceration…

A month ago, I posted about my friend Bianca Diaz’s new children’s book “The Princess Who Went Quiet.”

princessquiet2

Along with several other people (from Moms United Against Violence and Incarceration and CLAIM), I co-organized an event last Tuesday to share Bianca’s book and to hear from formerly incarcerated mothers.

princessquiet

It was a moving and beautiful event. The women who bravely shared their stories with us were honest and reflective. They discussed the impact(s) of their incarceration on their children. They talked about the hopes they had and have for their children. They shared their mistakes and their triumphs. Many of us shed tears along with the women. These were tears of rage, pain, grief and love.

I was technically the moderator of the panel but I had nothing to do. I just invited each woman to speak, to share her story. I wasn’t needed; they were more than enough. As we closed out the event, I spoke briefly to the importance of telling children that they are not at fault for their loved one’s incarceration. I said these children also needed reassurance that even though their loved one was away, they were thinking of them and would always love them. These are lessons that I have learned in working with young people over the years. They are simple but essential.

One of my favorite things about Bianca’s book is that it’s a story of a young girl coming to voice. So many children with incarcerated loved ones need help to articulate their feelings, fears and questions about what’s happened. That’s really the bottom line. Unfortunately, too often they are confronted with judgement and shame. This needs to change. The women who spoke last Tuesday helped to catalyze a conversation that I hope will spread throughout our city.

Bianca generously made her book available to view and download through issu:

Many people, however, have been in touch to say that they can’t figure out how to download the book through issu. To that end, I am making a PDF copy of the book available for downloading. I would encourage everyone to first read Bianca’s reflections about talking to children about the PIC and also listening to formerly incarcerated mothers narrate their own stories. She was inspired to write the book based these experiences.

Finally, Bianca created the book with the intention that it be shared with children who have incarcerated loved ones. This means that those who download the book have a responsibility to share it with that group of children. I hope that you will do so and that you will find a way to let the children know that they are loved and cherished.

Jan 30 2015

New Resource: The Knotted Line Curriculum

I just received a free hard copy of a new curriculum guide co-created by Evan Bissell based on the terrific online resource “The Knotted Line.” It’s terrific.

The Torture of Mothers by Elizabeth Catlett (1970)

The Torture of Mothers by Elizabeth Catlett (1970)

The Knotted Line Curriculum looks to support critical analysis of the dynamics that justify the PIC and the shifting line of free/unfree by creating opportunities for inquiry into “the infinity of historical traces” that have led to the present. The research projects in this curriculum connect current and past systems of oppression, and movements of self-determination through creative mediums and outcomes.

For example, inspired by Octavia Butler’s novel Kindred, the Historical Fiction Time Travel project develops a series of letters between different time periods that share context, challenges and strategies in their respective times. Additionally, nine workshops engage critical analysis and research skills in exploring concepts of power, media, and freedom. These workshops are designed for use individually, integrated in unit plans or as part of the Knotted Line projects.

All of the materials are also available online, but if you would like a full-color print version of the curriculum, please fill out this form. If you are part of an institution that would like copies, donations help extend the distribution of free copies. So please consider a donation if you can afford it.

Jan 09 2015

Liberals Love Prisons #1000

I ordered Naomi Murakawa’s book “The First Civil Right: How Liberals Built Prison in America” last month. It’s sitting in a pile of other books on my living room floor. I would love to get to it by March. Willie Osterweil reviews the book in this week’s edition of the Nation Magazine. He writes:

“This is the fundamental thesis of Murakawa’s book: legal civil rights and the American carceral state are built on the same conceptions of race, the state and their relationship. As liberals believe that racism is first and foremost a question of individual bias, they imagine racism can be overcome by removing the discretion of (potentially racist) individuals within government through a set of well-crafted laws and rules. If obviously discriminatory laws can be struck down, and judges, statesmen or administrators aren’t allowed to give reign to their racism, then the system should achieve racially just outcomes. But even putting aside the fact that a removal of individual discretion is impossible, such a conception of “fairness” applies just as easily to producing sentencing minimums as school desegregation.”

Murakawa’s book and thesis are important because they focus on Liberals’ role in expanding the carceral state and in creating the epidemic of mass incarceration. Too often, the conversation has centered on the Republicans’ so-called focus on “law and order” as the chief driver of mass incarceration. But the truth is that Liberals love prisons too. They always have.

I saw this map using 2010 Census data to illustrate U.S. incarceration earlier this week. The map below includes both the prison and jail population.

incarceratedpop2010

What do you notice in looking at this map?

First, prisoners are everywhere across the country. Second look at rate of prisoners in California which is off the charts and connect this to Murakawa’s thesis. Finally, Christopher Ingraham shares this stunning fact in the Washington Post:

To put these figures in context, we have slightly more jails and prisons in the U.S. — 5,000 plus — than we do degree-granting colleges and universities. In many parts of America, particularly the South, there are more people living in prisons than on college campuses.

We need to complicate the story about who bears responsibility for the rise of the prison nation. I am glad for work like Murakawa’s and look forward to more scholarship in the future.

Jan 06 2015

New Resource Available: Teaching About the PIC & Criminal Legal System

As classes have resumed this week for high school and some college students across the country, my organization, Project NIA, is making a new resource available to educators and organizers today.

My friend and long-time NIA volunteer Dr. Michelle VanNatta wrote and compiled an invaluable guide last year. “Teaching about the Prison Industrial Complex and Criminal Legal System: Exercises, Simulations, Resources, and Discussion Ideas” offers activities that can be adapted, shared, and transformed to meet the needs of different groups. These activities are offered as potential tools in the hopes they may be useful in sparking discussion and in the development of more curricula.

Anyone who is interested in the guide can complete a short survey below to receive the link to download a copy at no cost.

The guide is in no way meant to provide a comprehensive look at issues in the prison industrial complex or criminal legal system. This is not a systematically developed, integrated group of exercises intended to provide a thorough view and analysis of all the critical issues about the prison industrial complex that communities, students, and activists need to learn about. Rather, it’s a set of tools intended to be adapted and integrated into curricula, popular education, or training efforts by teachers, organizers, and community builders.

I want to thank Michelle for her generosity in creating this resource and making it freely available. I also thank my friend Jacqui Shine for lending her design talents.

Finally, while this guide is offered at no cost to those interested, it is not “free.” Lots of time and effort went into creating the resource. Project NIA is a small organization that relies heavily on individual donors to do our work. If you want to contribute to the work, you can mail a check to us here. In addition, you can read our 2014 year in review highlights here.

I hope that these resources are helpful in building knowledge about aspects of the PIC. Please feel free to share the link to the survey with others who might also like to download the guide. As a courtesy, we are asking that everyone first complete the survey before accessing the guide.

You can complete the survey below and then download the guide.

Create your free online surveys with SurveyMonkey , the world’s leading questionnaire tool.

Dec 31 2014

Sights and Sounds of Chicago’s Struggle for Reparations…

Over the past couple of weeks, Chicagoans have intensified their calls for the City Council and Mayor Emanuel to pass a reparations ordinance for police torture survivors. The struggle for justice for Chicago’s survivors of police torture has spanned several decades.

On December 16 and December 29th, several organizations and individuals organized actions and marches to increase the pressure on elected officials to pass the ordinance. Below are some photos and video from both actions. You can support this organizing by contacting holdout alderpeople and demanding that they support the ordinance. Details for how to help are here.

December 16Holiday March and Action to Pass Reparations for Chicago Police Torture Survivors

Professor Adam Green, a member of the Chicago Torture Justice Memorials, opened the march with a few words setting the context of the struggle.

photo by Page May (12/16/14)

photo by Page May (12/16/14)

photo by Page May (12/16/14)

photo by Page May (12/16/14)

photo by Page May (12/16/14)

photo by Page May (12/16/14)

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Dec 23 2014

Video – Groundswell’s Brooklyn Mural Project: The Prison Industrial Complex

THIRTEEN documented one Groundswell mural from conception to execution — a piece entitled “P.I.C.T.U.R.E.S Prison Industrial Complex: Tyranny Undermining Rights, Education, and Society” in the Brownsville neighborhood of Brooklyn, that addresses the causes and effects of incarceration.

Since 1996, Groundswell has brought together artists, educators, activists and youth to create collaborative public artwork across New York City. Every mural has a central theme — meant to give expression to underrepresented ideas and perspectives, and to better the lives of both neighbors and artists alike.

Dec 14 2014

Free Lookman, Kidnapped by Chicago Police…

Update: Thanks to everyone for reading and sharing this post. I have just returned from bond court and have some “good news” regarding Lookman and his case. His charges were dropped to two misdemeanors (battery and resisting arrest). The charges remain bogus and will be fought in court. Lookman will be represented by my friend Joey Mogul in his next court date. For now, we are told that he will be released later today on a $10,000 I-bond. The money raised so far will go towards the legal fees that will accrue. But for now, Lookman should be home later today. Thank God and thank all of you for your support.

On a related note, two other young people of color were arrested at yesterday’s protests. One was badly beaten by the cops and taken to the hospital before being returned to jail. They too were represented by Joey and Molly Armour of the National Lawyers Guild today. Unfortunately, they are still charged with felonies. They have a $150,000 bond between them so they will need $15,000 to be bailed out. Some of their supporters are currently working on an online fundraiser for this. I will share the link once I have it.

Update #2: Lookman is out of jail. However, two other young men remain locked up on felony aggravated battery charges on a police officer, a felony. One of those young men was badly beaten by the police and had to be taken to the hospital. They are without resources for bail. Here is their bail fund. Please help them get out of jail as soon as possible. Any amount helps and please share the link with others. Thanks.

It’s his smile that draws you in… Mischievous and precious because it isn’t bestowed to everyone. You have to earn it because his ‘unlucky’ life has offered little to smile about. To bask in that smile is a gift.

I was at a visioning and strategy session about how to end police violence yesterday when I heard that Lookman was arrested.

photo by Yolanda Perdomo (12/13/14)

photo by Yolanda Perdomo (12/13/14)

He was protesting police terror along of hundreds of other Chicagoans. As soon as I heard that he was snatched by CPD, my heart dropped. I knew that he was close, so damn close, to getting off probation for a nonviolent offense. I knew that nothing good would come of this. Nothing.

Sure enough, when I arrived at the police station last night, I heard that he was being charged with aggravated assault on a police officer, a felony. Witnesses who saw the entire episode unfold say that he did no such thing. These are trumped up charges. We will fight them starting today in bond court.

Lookman is a young black man living in Chicago. As such, he is a walking target. This takes its toll over the course of a young life. Along with the relentless police surveillance and harassment, Lookman was a victim of the school-to-prison pipeline. Listen as he shares his experience of getting into fights at school which eventually landed him behind bars at the young age of 15.

When Lookman talks about his time in the “Audy Home,” he means the Cook County Juvenile Temporary Detention Center (JTDC). Below is a photo of a cell at the juvenile jail. Lookman talks in the audio clip about looking out of the window in order to feel “human again,” you can see what that window looks like.

Cook County Juvenile Temporary Detention Center by Richard Ross (Juvenile-in-Justice)

Cook County Juvenile Temporary Detention Center by Richard Ross (Juvenile-in-Justice)

In Chicago, we lock black boys up to cage the rage but it doesn’t disappear, it only grows. To heal the walking wounded, we cling to anything that we can find. We beg them to talk, to express, to let go. We have almost no resources. The state is allocating those to the military and to build more cages. Some of them like Lookman channel their feelings in spoken word. “I’m tired,” he says.

Over the years, Lookman has grown as a person within a leadership development program that my organization incubated for many years called Circles and Ciphers. Lookman has traveled across Chicago leading peace circles in schools and other community spaces.

Lookman leading a peace circle last month (photo by Sarah Jane Rhee)

Lookman leading a peace circle last month (photo by Sarah Jane Rhee)

He spends most of his time these days looking for ways to bring more justice and some peace into this world. For this, he should be respected and uplifted. The Chicago Police department is hell bent on harassing, targeting and destroying him instead. We will not allow them to kidnap and disappear Lookman. He has a family and community that loves him. We want him back. He has work to do in the world. He has a life to live. We will not stand for this injustice. Please help us fight.

We need to raise money to bail Lookman out of jail. Click HERE to donate (this link will be updated with information after today’s bond hearing, we are just getting a head start). Thank you in advance for your support and help.

Nov 29 2014

Send White People to Jail: Protest in the Era of Black (Mass) Incarceration

On Tuesday, young people from BYP 100‘s Chicago chapter organized and led an occupation of City Hall. Sitting and standing in front of Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s offices, members of Chicago BYP 100 chanted, facilitated teach-ins about the PIC, staged a die-in and kept healing circles.

photo by Sarah Jane Rhee (Chicago, 11/25/14)

photo by Sarah Jane Rhee (Chicago, 11/25/14)

BYP 100 members were joined in this action by dozens of supporters of all ages, races, genders and more. By all accounts, it was a beautiful and affecting action for those in attendance.

photo by Kelly Hayes (Chicago, 11/25/14)

photo by Kelly Hayes (Chicago, 11/25/14)

The protesters intended to stay at City Hall for 28 hours to dramatize the fact that “every 28 hours in this country, a black person is killed by a police officer, security officer or a self-appointed vigilante.”

City Hall closes officially at 5 pm. During the entire day beginning at 9 am, protesters were monitored by police officers who guarded the entrance of the Mayor’s offices.

photo by Kelly Hayes (Chicago, 11/25/14)

photo by Kelly Hayes (Chicago, 11/25/14)

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