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)

Read more »

Feb 11 2015

Prison Prep For Black Girls…

Last week, the African American Policy Forum (AAPF) and Columbia Law School’s Center for Intersectionality and Social Policy Studies released a report titled “Black Girls Matter: Pushed Out, Overpoliced and Underprotected.”

The report found that while black boys were suspended three times more than white boys, black girls were suspended SIX times more than white girls.

source: Center for Intersectionality and Social Policy Studies

source: Center for Intersectionality and Social Policy Studies

For those of us who focus on ending the school-to-prison pipeline, this finding is unfortunately not a surprise. The trend toward the increasing criminalization of black girls in schools and society is not new.

Recently, Dr. Connie Wun published a very good article (PDF) about the role of anti-black racism in school discipline and punishment for girls. I highly recommend reading the article for a better understanding of how & why black girls are particularly targeted for harsh punishment in schools.

Regular readers might recall that I wrote about a Black girl named Dorothy Young a couple of years ago. Dorothy was sentenced to a reformatory for allegedly cursing at a white boy in 1969:

For allegedly calling a white boy a “bastard,” telling him where to kiss her and using the words “damn” and “goddamn” on a school bus, Dorothy Young, 14, of Sylvester, Ga., is confined indefinitely to a reformatory known as the Regional Youth Development Center in Sandersville, Ga. She is the first child sent there from her county in three years.

Dorothy’s sister, Yvonnne, 11, was accused of using similar profane language to a white boy a year older than she and is serving a year’s probation.

You can read the rest of Dorothy and her sister’s stories here to see how schools have played a role in criminalizing black girls for decades. Unfortunately as the “Black Girls Matter: Pushed out, Overpoliced, and Underprotected” report makes clear this issue remains undertheorized and too often neglected since the focus has been disproportionately on the criminalization of black boys in schools. However with scholarship like Dr. Wun’s and the report by AAPF along with on the ground organizing, maybe we will begin to better address black girls’ needs and concerns.

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 28 2015

Marissa Alexander Did Not Die…

Marissa Alexander didn’t die.

In spite of her husband threatening to kill her & the state of Florida relentlessly pursuing social death, Marissa walked out of a Duval County jail yesterday. Alive.

She had a hearing and thankfully the judge accepted the terms of her plea deal with the state of Florida which means that she gets to go home to spend the next two years electronically shackled under house arrest. And this is supposed to be “justice” for her. We are expected to be relieved and in many ways we are. The state is so diabolically effective at criminalizing and killing our friends that the bar has been lowered regarding what counts as victory.

image by Jennifer Kernica (2015)

image by Jennifer Kernica (2015)

Marissa spent 3 years in jail and has also served a year already under house arrest. All told, she will have spent over 6 years under some form of incarceration and state supervision for firing a warning shot to defend against her abusive husband. No one was hurt by the shot and yet Marissa has lost years of her life.

I became aware of Marissa and her plight in 2011. In 2012, after Trayvon Martin was killed & her name became more well-known, I paid closer attention to her legal tribulations. I wrote my first post referencing her conviction in May 2012. It was an essay focusing on how women of color have historically been denied access to self-defense when faced with violence. I specifically related Marissa’s story to that of Inez Garcia. For the most part though, I didn’t get actively involved in Marissa’s defense. I was busy with many other projects and I saw that she had support from the Free Marissa NOW National Mobilization Campaign.

photo by Sarah Jane Rhee (11/24/14)

photo by Sarah Jane Rhee (11/24/14)

In early 2013, I saw a photograph of some white comrades holding a banner in support of Marissa at a Chicago rally and it pushed me over the edge. I was relieved that people in my city were lifting up her name and I was embarrassed that white people were the ones publicly showing her solidarity. How could a city like Chicago, home to thousands of Black people, not have a local defense committee to support her? The question kept gnawing at me. I was still swamped with other work and felt that I wouldn’t have the capacity to take on building yet another organization.

In the summer of 2013, I finally decided that I would organize a teach-in on Marissa’s case. I’d host it on her birthday in September in response to a national call to action by FMN. I reasoned that if participants were exposed to the injustice of the case and provided with an opportunity to organize on her behalf that they would. It’s exactly what happened. The twist was that, while I initially warned that I would only be able to serve as a sporadic adviser to the local defense committee, I ended up getting drawn into a co-organizer role fairly early. Working with my fellow Chicago Alliance to Free Marissa Alexander (CAFMA) organizers has been one of the best prisoner defense committee and organizing experiences that I’ve had.

I’ve written briefly about the importance of a defense committee for prisoners:

“Marissa Alexander is a person. She is also fighting a case and that case illuminates a greater cause. But she is a human being. This is something that can be overlooked. It’s easy to do for a number of reasons. Most defendants are advised by their attorneys to keep quiet while facing charges. This creates a vacuum. If the defendant is lucky, others step in to speak for them and to act as their surrogate filling in the gaps in their story. This is the position in which Marissa finds herself.

And so it falls to others to find ways to keep her name and her story in the public’s mind. It falls to others to devise creative ways of engaging new supporters. It falls to others to convince people that they should care about the defendant and that they should offer material support for a prisoner.

One of the important lessons that I’ve learned in my years of prisoner defense committee work is how isolating and lonely the criminal legal process is. This is particularly true for detainees who find themselves jailed while awaiting trial or a plea deal. It is difficult to make peace with the loss of your freedom when you haven’t been convicted. Letters and other communications are lifelines for those who find themselves in such a predicament. The knowledge that people on the outside care about you, haven’t forgotten about you, and support you is encouraging. Often it makes the difference between giving up and staying hopeful. That line is an excruciatingly thin one.”

I’ve been all in with Marissa and her case since late summer 2013. Ten days prior to her expected release, CAFMA spearheaded a 10 day fundraising campaign to insure that she would not be burdened with paying for her own incarceration (through electronic monitoring). We estimated that it would cost $11,000 for two years of house arrest and thanks to generous supporters that goal was met in the first three days of the campaign. So yesterday, Marissa walked out of jail with at least one less financial worry. She is also no longer facing a mandatory minimum sentence of 20 years (for her initial conviction) or potentially 60 years (had she been convicted in a retrial). I suppose that I should take some solace in this. Unfortunately, I feel a conflicting set of emotions. On the one hand, I feel a seething, low grade rage and one the other, I am filled with gratitude and love.

I am angry that Marissa, a victim of domestic violence, has had to spend even one day in jail for defending herself. I am angry that Marissa, a mother of three, has spent years away from her children. I am angry at a spiteful and vindictive prosecutor who abused her discretion and pursued Marissa like Ahab. I am angry that Marissa is still shackled to the state for two more years and that she is expected to pay for her continued confinement. I am angry that while we successfully raised money for Marissa’s legal defense too many people (including black people) stayed quiet on the sideline. I am angry because of the Marissas of the past, the current Marissas and the future ones. I am angry because violence against women continues unabated. I am angry because too many black women’s lives DO NOT in fact matter. I am angry.

Alongside my justified anger, however, lies profound love and gratitude. I am grateful that Marissa wasn’t broken by her experience of injustice. I am grateful that she has a family and particularly a mother who has stood steadfastly by her side throughout this ordeal. I am grateful to Aleta, Sumayya, Helen and to my friend Alisa for taking the initiative to launch the Free Marissa Now mobilization campaign in 2012. The countless hours, days, weeks, months, and years that you labored are valued. I saw you. Thank you. I am grateful to my comrades and friends of the Chicago Alliance to Free Marissa Alexander (CAFMA), particularly Tasasha, Maya, Holly, Ash, Monica, Sean, Jessica, Sarah, Rachel, Jennifer, Olivia, Suey, Gail, Chez and most especially Ayanna. Your creativity, passion, and persistence are unmatched.

There are many more people in Chicago & across the country who contributed their talents, art, money and time to supporting Marissa and I am grateful to and for them all. Thank you Mychal, Vikki, Molly, Esther, William, Micah, Malcolm, Steve, Bianca, Kiese, DJ, Trudy, Christina, Lindsay, Brandon, Jamal, Nikki, Jasiri, Beth, Lauren, Emily, Jenn, Billy, Lewis, Noah, Allison, Vivi, Sage, Brandi, Kelly, Sam, Scheherazade, Mary, Lex, Zachary, Rachel, Shaun, Claudia, Dave, Andy, and many, many more. Some of the people who helped like Lauren suffered the negative consequences of state surveillance as a result; reminding us that doing this work takes a toll and is always risky. I am grateful to the ones who took the risk. I am grateful for our resistance and our endurance. I am grateful for the witness. I am grateful for our stubborn insistence to love each other even when the world is unloving toward us. I am grateful for beauty in the bricks.

Marissa is out of jail but she is still not free. I hope that supporters will continue to care about what happens from here on out. For my part, I am going to take a break from prisoner defense work. I am certain that it won’t be a long one. There are too many people locked up and too much injustice. But it’s important in this work to preserve one’s mind, body and spirit. It’s important to prevent burn out. So I’ll step away for a little while sure to be drawn back again by another travesty of injustice. I will keep an eye out for Marissa and I’ll be ready to support her in what comes next.

We welcome our sister home understanding that she’s still not free. Cognizant also that none of us is free while others are caged.

by Suey Park (2014)

by Suey Park (2014)

But Marissa did not die. For this, on this day, we rejoice. In the words of the great writer-poet Lucille Clifton: come celebrate/with me that everyday/something has tried to kill me/and has failed.

Marissa will need money as she gets on her feet. If you have a few dollars, please contribute to her restoration here.

Jan 25 2015

Chicago #TrainTakeOver For #BlackLivesMatter

If you read this blog with any regularity, then you will be unsurprised at young Chicagoans’ consistent and constant creativity in protests. Over the past few months, young people in Chicago have led several protests against state violence.

On Friday, some of these young people organized a #TrainTakeOver. Below is a terrific video by Kuumba Lynx documenting the action.

photo by Todd St. Hill (1/23/15)

photo by Todd St. Hill (1/23/15)

photo by Todd St. Hill (1/23/15)

photo by Todd St. Hill (1/23/15)

Jan 15 2015

For the Living…

This morning on Dr. King’s birthday, I’ll be joining friends and comrades at City Hall to sing in for reparations. This action is the third one in a month and is focused on pressuring Rahm Emanuel and the Chicago City Council to pass a reparations ordinance for police torture survivors. Over half of the council has expressed their support for the ordinance, the Emanuel administration is the current obstacle to passage.

My Goddaughter recently asked why it is important to pass this reparations ordinance. I gave a number of reasons having to do with fairness, restitution, decency, morality and more. Above all though, I told her that it would be one way to concretize the meaning(s) of #BlackLivesMatter. As political philosopher. Joy James has said: “Black lives matter because we make them matter.” Insisting that black people who are tortured by the state be compensated for this harm is one way that we can make Black lives matter.

As protesters around the world have taken to lying down in public spaces, staging “die-ins,” I’ve been uncomfortable and mute. I’ve been screaming inside though: “The system already wants us dead. Living is resistance.

I saw a photograph on Twitter a few weeks ago. It was of a young black woman lying on train tracks as a “die-in” protest against police violence.

diein

The image has haunted me. I’m over dying in. I hate death.

But I have kept my mouth shut because who cares, really, about what I think of a particular protest tactic. There are plenty of tactics that I disavow but I don’t use my small platform to do so publicly. And besides, plenty of people think die-ins are symbolically effective.

For me, the reparations ordinance is a memorial for the living. The ordinance’s stubborn insistence that people (no matter what they have done) should be compensated for torture is a little earthquake. It shakes up and re-configures the normalization of punishment. To say that the state needs to formally apologize for harm done is important too.

At City Hall today, survivors of Jon Burge’s torture will once again speak of it loudly, publicly and with courage. And those of us who are there to listen and demand restitution will sing. It’s a live-in. Join Us.

photo by Sarah Jane Rhee (12/29/14)

photo by Sarah Jane Rhee (12/29/14)

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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