Mar 05 2014

Prison IS Violence…

Warning: This post includes descriptions of extreme violence and brutality.

There have been a couple of stories in the recent news exposing the brutality of prisons in the United States. First, the on-going travesty at Tutwiler women’s prison in Alabama was revisited by the New York Times over the weekend:

For a female inmate, there are few places worse than the Julia Tutwiler Prison for Women.

Corrections officers have raped, beaten and harassed women inside the aging prison here for at least 18 years, according to an unfolding Justice Department investigation. More than a third of the employees have had sex with prisoners, which is sometimes the only currency for basics like toilet paper and tampons.

But Tutwiler, whose conditions are so bad that the federal government says they are most likely unconstitutional, is only one in a series of troubled prisons in a state system that has the second-highest number of inmates per capita in the nation.

I’ve highlighted the situation at Tutwiler here a couple of years ago. Are sexual violence and brutality new for women prisoners? Of course not! In fact, in the mid-19th century after visiting Auburn State Prison in New York, the prison chaplain, Reverend B.C. Smith, remarked on conditions there: “To be a male convict would be quite tolerable; but to be a female convict, for any protracted period, would be worse than death” (Rathbone, 2005).

Randall G. Shelden (2010) wrote about how women prisoners were treated in the 19th century:

“The conditions of the confinement of women were horrible — filthy, overcrowded, and at risk of sexual abuse from male guards. Rachel Welch became pregnant at Auburn while serving a punishment in a solitary cell; she died after childbirth as the result of a flogging by a prison official earlier in her pregnancy. Her death prompted New York officials to build the Mount Pleasant Prison Annex for women on the grounds of Sing Sing in Mount Pleasant, New York in 1839. The governor of New York had recommended separate facilities in 1828, but the legislature did not approve the measure because the washing, ironing, and sewing performed by the women saved the Auburn prison system money. A corrupt administration at the Indiana State Prison used the forced labor of female inmates to provide a prostitution service for male guards (p.134).”

The guard who beat Rachel Welch so brutally was named Ebenezer Cobb. He was convicted of assault and battery and fined $25. He was allowed to keep his job.

The second development in the past few days involves the MacArthur Justice Center at Northwestern Law School which brought a class action lawsuit against Cook County Jail alleging a “sadistic culture.” Conditions are described as “hellish.” As someone who has had to visit the Jail pretty regularly, I concur with this assessment. I have written about the fruitless struggle to reform Cook County Jail dating back to the 1870s. Still, today, detainees continue to be abused and harmed even after countless lawsuits and federal intervention.

Read more »

Mar 03 2014

Still Torturing Children…

New York is banning solitary confinement of children under 18 along with implementing other reforms. But as the Center on Investigative Reporting points out:

“…the rule does not apply to city and county jails, like New York City’s Rikers Island, which houses hundreds of minors as young as 16. Although most of them have not been convicted, they still can be punished as adults for breaking jail rules. That often means weeks or months in solitary confinement.”

Some of you reading this might be surprised that any state would use such a practice at all. A couple of years ago, Human Rights Watch (HRW) published a wrenching report about the scope and impact(s) of solitary on children. Basically, they reaffirmed that the practice amounts to physical and psychological torture. HRW produced the video below to accompany the report.

Solitary confinement or what many prisoners call “the hole” can only accurately be considered torture. Charles Dickens recognized as much in the 19th century. Too often, however, the practice is either ignored or discussed euphemistically. America has ALWAYS been pro-torture of certain people. I offer as exhibit A the spectacle lynching of black people in the U.S. So we shouldn’t be surprised at the fact that we still torture so many people in prison through the use of solitary as well as other forms of physical, psychological, and emotional brutality. CIR produced an excellent animated video to illustrate how solitary confinement is experienced by children. I recommend that everyone watch it.

We should end solitary confinement in general as a practice in our prisons. We should abolish prisons.

Dec 17 2013

15 Things That We Re-Learned About the Prison Industrial Complex in 2013

The engine of the prison industrial complex unfortunately kept on chugging in 2013.


I wanted to highlight some of the key developments as I saw them during this year. There are so many things that I could have included and it was difficult for me to only choose fifteen to list. Truth be told, I initially only planned to feature 10 issues. That didn’t work out. Some things that aren’t on the list include the plea deals that Federal prosecutors coerce from drug defendants under threat of long prison sentences, the treatment of LGBTQ immigrants in detention centers, the political imprisonment of Chelsea Manning, Marissa Alexander leaving jail pending her March 2014 trial and more. Feel free to add your suggestions in the comments section.

1. The Federal prison population has grown to 219,000 people, an increase of 27% over the last decade.

Since 1980, the Federal prison population has exploded by 790 percent. Almost 50% of these prisoners are there for drug offenses. According to a new report (PDF) by the Urban Institute, Federal prison overcrowding will worsen if policy changes aren’t implemented. Federal prisons that are now 35 to 40 percent over capacity could reach 55 percent over capacity by 2023. The Justice Department’s budget for the federal prison system has increased from $5 billion in 2008 to $6.9 billion today.

The Government Accountability Office released a report this month about the Bureau of Prisons. In the report, the GAO attributes the increase of the Federal prison population to several factors including mandatory minimum sentences. In an attempt to address overcrowding, this summer, Attorney General Eric Holder gave “new instructions to federal prosecutors on how they should write their criminal complaints when charging low-level drug offenders, to avoid triggering the mandatory minimum sentences.”

[The Sentencing Project published an excellent fact sheet (PDF) outlining trends in U.S. corrections for those who want to learn more the scope of incarceration. Rosa Brooks’s essay in Foreign Policy provides a good overview about the incarceration nation.]

2. We were still sterilizing women in U.S. prisons as late as 2010.

This summer, the Center on Investigative Reporting broke the story that:

Doctors under contract with the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation sterilized nearly 150 female inmates from 2006 to 2010 without required state approvals, The Center for Investigative Reporting has found.

At least 148 women received tubal ligations in violation of prison rules during those five years – and there are perhaps 100 more dating back to the late 1990s, according to state documents and interviews.

From 1997 to 2010, the state paid doctors $147,460 to perform the procedure, according to a database of contracted medical services for state prisoners.

The women were signed up for the surgery while they were pregnant and housed at either the California Institution for Women in Corona or Valley State Prison for Women in Chowchilla, which is now a men’s prison.

Former inmates and prisoner advocates maintain that prison medical staff coerced the women, targeting those deemed likely to return to prison in the future

The state of California held hearings this fall to collect more information.

Below is a documentary titled “Sterilization Behind Bars” produced by the Center on Investigative Reporting released just last month.

3. Prisons are still sites of violence and abuse.

In April 2013, the U.S. Justice Department announced that it had launched an investigation of Julia Tutwiler Prison for Women. I had written about the allegations of abuse and violence last year. The DOJ announcement came several months after a scathing report about conditions and abuses at the prison was released by the National Institute of Corrections (NIC).

Tutwiler Prison was named by Mother Jones Magazine as one of America’s 10 Worst Prisons earlier this year.

Read more »

Jun 16 2013

Image of the Day: Closing TAMMS…

I’ve written a lot about the TAMMS Year Ten Campaign on this blog. It’s because I have such admiration for my friends and allies who were involved in the (more than) decade long struggle to close that torture chamber. Anyway, artist Paul Kjelland has created a poster to celebrate the closing of TAMMS Supermax prison. You should read his description of the process for creating the poster.

by Paul Kjelland

by Paul Kjelland

Feb 01 2013

Infographic: Anatomy of the Supermax Prison



Nov 30 2012

Help Us to Close TAMMS & IYCs in Illinois…

Illinois Residents, We need your HELP!

Just a couple of days ago, Governor Pat Quinn’s vetoes of funding for several correctional facilities in Illinois were overridden in the Illinois Senate.

Now advocates are pressing hard to prevent an override in the House. We would ask that you contact as many House members as you can over the next three business days (11/30, 12/3, 12/4) and ask them to vote NO on an override.

Here is a fact sheet on the facility closures for you to share with legislators. The basic argument is that these facilities are underutilized and empty. For instance, Murphysboro contains no youth, and Tamms only contains 200 inmates. Existing facilities can absorb and manage these populations. Keeping these facilities open will result in the layoff of 530 DCFS employees, while all Department of Corrections and Department of Juvenile Justice employees affected by the closures have been, or will be offered, positions at existing facilities.

Additionally, keeping these facilities open harms vulnerable children by unnecessarily separating them from their families during a period of critical growth and development. We need the money from these facilities to prevent more children from entering into costly State foster care, protect at-risk children from abuse and neglect, and provide adoption assistance necessary to place children in safe and loving homes. Cuts in critical programs at DCFS harm children throughout the entire State.

Ultimately, we cannot afford to keep underutilized, empty facilities open at the expense of vulnerable children. In this time of budgetary crisis, it does not make sense to keep these facilities open when cost-effective alternatives exist.

Please contact your House representative. District telephone numbers can be found here. Make sure to ask them to vote NO on the override of SB 2474. Please email your House representative’s response to Laurie Jo Reynolds at each day before the conclusion of business on 11/30, 12/3, and 12/4.

For some inspiration, please watch this fun video which is meant to encourage everyone to call your legislators about this important issue.

Oct 29 2012

“Kasserian Ingera or How Are the Children?”

The Masai warriors usually greet each other with “Kasserian Ingera” or “How are the children?” The traditional answer is “All the children are well.” I really like this greeting because it clearly underscores the priority that this culture puts on the well-being of its most vulnerable members.

I was thinking about this when I read the recent Human Rights Watch report “Growing Up Locked Down: Youth in Solitary Confinement in Jails and Prisons Across the United States.” The Huffington Post published an article describing the findings of the report:

The report is based on interviews and correspondence with more than 125 young people in 19 states who spent time in solitary confinement while under age 18, as well as with jail and/or prison officials in 10 states.

Human Rights Watch and the ACLU estimate that in 2011, more than 95,000 young people under age 18 were held in prisons and jails. A significant number of these facilities use solitary confinement – for days, weeks, months, or even years – to punish, protect, house, or treat some of the young people held there.

Because young people are still developing, traumatic experiences like solitary confinement may have a profound effect on their chance to rehabilitate and grow, the groups found. Solitary confinement can exacerbate short- and long-term mental health problems or make it more likely that such problems will develop. Young people in solitary confinement are routinely denied access to treatment, services, and programming required to meet their medical, psychological, developmental, social, and rehabilitative needs.

Below is a video with interviews of youth who experienced solitary confinement:

It would serve us all well in the U.S. if we began to greet each other with “Kasserian Ingera.” Perhaps this would be a reminder to us not to torture our children…

Aug 21 2012

The Legacy of George Jackson: A Eulogy by Angela Davis

After George Jackson was shot and killed at San Quentin Prison on August 21, 1971, Angela Davis wrote a tribute to be read at his memorial service. At the time, she herself was incarcerated and awaiting trial. Today is the 41st Anniversary of Jackson’s murder. Below is her eulogy to Jackson.

An enemy bullet has once more brought grief and sadness to black people and to all who oppose racism and injustice and who love and fight for freedom. On Saturday, August 21, a San Quentin guard’s sniper bullet executed George Jackson and wiped out that last modicum of freedom with which he had persevered and resisted so fiercely for eleven years.

Though deprived so long of the freedom of movement enjoyed by his oppressors, even as he died, George was far more free than they. Like he lived, he died resisting. A field marshal of the Black Panther Party, George belongs to a very special breed of fallen black leaders, for his struggle was the most perilous.

Read more »

Jun 20 2012

The Mental Torture of Incarceration…

photo by Sam Love – Protesting to Close TAMMS

Yesterday, we learned that Governor Pat Quinn is still planning to close several prisons in Illinois over the objections of the union and many elected officials. It is a real act of political courage. If you are from Illinois, please consider taking a couple of minutes today or tomorrow to thank Gov. Quinn for sticking to his recommendations: Springfield: 217-782-0244, Chicago: 312-814-2121

One of the prisons that the Governor will close is TAMMS-Supermax which I have written about several times on the blog. Simply put: TAMMS is a torture chamber where prisoners are kept locked in their cells for 23.5 hours a day. Many groups, particularly TAMMS YEAR TEN, have been advocating for years to close the facility. It is almost too much to believe that this might be coming to pass.

As a reminder of the mental torture that is incarceration, I want to share an excerpt from another letter written by Alfred Hassan, a prisoner whose letters were published in a 1972 book titled “Maximum Security: Letters from Prison.” His words are searing and powerful and true.

Read more »

Jun 12 2012

Martin Sostre: Legal Advocate, Prisoner, Revolutionary…

When I mention the name Martin Sostre, what comes to mind? For many, his name will conjure no images or words. Yet he was a man who made a real impact in terms of prisoner rights in the United States.

Martin Sostre was the owner of the Afro-Asian Bookstore in Buffalo, New York. On July 14, 1967, the police raided his store and arrested Sostre on “narcotics, riot, arson, and assault charges.” After the riot and arson charges were dropped, Sostre was tried by an all-white jury and convicted of selling $15 worth of heroin. He was given a sentence of 31 to 41 years in prison.

This short summary does not of course do justice to Martin Sostre nor to his legacy. Prior to the 1967 police raid, Sostre had already spent a dozen years between 1952 and 1964 locked inside Attica prison on a narcotics conviction. He was known to the police in Buffalo and suspicion surrounded him because he had converted to Islam (in the 50s while he was incarcerated) and was also outspoken against the injustices of racial and class oppression.

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