Mar 16 2014

Louder Than A Bomb 2014: Chicago Youth Have Their Say…

The voices blared from loud speakers as hundreds listened raptly at the Cadillac Palace last night. It was the team finals of the 2014 Louder Than A Bomb Youth Poetry Festival and I was a judge. Young men incarcerated at the Cook County Juvenile Temporary Detention Center (JTDC) were reading from the zine “The PIC Is” created by my organization.

The prison industrial complex tears families apart,” one voice shared. “The prison industrial complex is where you spend your ‘best years’ just trying to survive,” said another.

Some young men tripped over their words; it didn’t matter. The audience was attentive, sporadically interjecting with appreciative sounds and fingersnaps. The stage was empty except for the DJ tucked in a corner and four microphone stands. I heard the experience described as “haunting.”

Louder than A Bomb stage as JTDC youth audio played (3/15/14)

Louder than A Bomb stage as JTDC youth audio played (photo by Nick Weaver, 3/15/14)

The disembodied voices cascaded over the crowd, emphasizing that the young people who were speaking the words were absent. I swallowed past the lump in my throat and surreptitiously dabbed by eyes. I was trying to contain my rage.

Perhaps the stark contrast between the empty stage and the voices that we were listening to was haunting. But it was also a reminder that the mostly black & brown young people who had graced the stage for most of the night prior to the JTDC performance could easily have been on the other side of the wall. The membrane that divides those performing on stage and the ones speaking through the loud speakers while caged behind bars is porous. The capriciousness and unfairness of the injustice system are a cruel reality. So I was furious.

Before and after the JTDC spoken word piece, young people took to the stage to share stories and experiences of racial & gender discrimination, adultism, addiction, family strife, suicide, gun violence, capitalist greed, and political corruption. Such large scale gatherings organized to simply listen to the truths and lived experiences of black and brown youth in Chicago are rare. I tried to take in the moment. I listened as young people of color buried the pernicious lie that they are disposable and challenged the world to “see” and “hear” them. ‘We are not who you say we are.’ ‘To those who fear and malign us, we are not violent and depraved predators and to those who say they care for us, we are not child soldiers.’ ‘We are human and we matter.’ These were, to my mind, some of the overarching statements of the night. And last night, the voices of the young people on both sides of the wall were indeed ‘louder than a bomb.’

Note: You can support the Free Write Jail Arts Program that works with incarcerated youth at the JTDC here and Louder Than A Bomb here.

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.

Feb 17 2014

Call to Action: Please Support SB 2760 and SB 2793 TODAY – Addressing School to Prison Pipeline

It’s that time of year again. This time, I am asking that you support two Senate bills that are intended to address school discipline issues in various ways. One focuses on school-based policing and the other on data transparency.

Sen Lightford- SB 2760 — FILE A WITNESS SLIP IN SUPPORT TODAY HERE.

Amends the School Code. Provides that (i) prior to being asked any question or being requested to make any statement while in the presence of a police officer, a student must be informed of the right not to answer any question or to make any statement in the presence of a police officer; (ii) prior to being asked any question or being requested to make any statement while in the presence of a police officer, a student must be informed of the right to have a parent, a guardian, or an attorney present during such questioning or request for a statement; (iii) prior to being asked any question or being requested to make any statement while in the presence of a police officer, a student must be informed that any information given in the presence of a police officer may result in an arrest and in the issuing of a summons and may be used in school discipline and in criminal prosecution; (iv) prior to the presence of a police officer during the questioning of a student or of a request for a statement, the school principal shall approve the presence of the police officer during the questioning of or while making a request for any statement from the student; and (v) prior to the presence of a police officer during the questioning of or while making a request for any statement from a student, a parent or guardian of the student must be given notification of the opportunity to be present during the questioning. Sets forth provisions concerning the notification, school principal and police officer consultation, and tracking and reporting data. Effective July 1, 2014.

Sen Hutchinson- SB 2793 Please file a witness slip in SUPPORT HERE.

Amends the School Code. As part of the annual school report card, requires every school to provide (i) data on the issuance of out-of-school suspensions, expulsions, and removals to alternative settings, disaggregated by race and ethnicity, gender, age, grade level, limited English proficiency status, length of exclusion, reason for exclusion, and whether alternative educational options were provided; (ii) data on the use of arrests or criminal citations, disaggregated by race and ethnicity, gender, age, grade level, disability status, limited English proficiency status, and alleged criminal offense; and (iii) data on student retention during and between academic years, disaggregated by race and ethnicity, gender, age, grade level, disability status, limited English proficiency status, and the reason for the student’s departure. Sets forth requirements and exemptions concerning the data, including requiring the State Board of Education to analyze the data on an annual basis and determine the top quartile of school districts for specified metrics. Requires certain districts identified by the State Board to submit a school discipline improvement plan identifying the strategies it will implement to reduce the use of harsh disciplinary practices or reduce the disproportionality evident in its disciplinary practices; sets forth other requirements.

If you’ve never filed a witness slip before, it’s simple and only takes two minutes:
1. Go to the House Judiciary Hearing website HERE
2. Click on the right icon under the “Witness Slips” column for SB 2760 and 2793 to create witness slips.
3. Under Section I, fill in your identification information.
4. Under Section II, fill out your organization if you are representing one or write “self” if you are representing yourself. You can also just fill out N/A.
5. In Section III, select the “Proponent” button.
6. In Section IV, select “Record of Appearance Only.”
7. Agree to the ILGA Terms of Agreement
8. Select the “Create Slip” button.

Slips can be submitted until tomorrow, February 18 at 12:30 p.m.

Feb 15 2014

Image of the Day: Scottsboro Boys

“This 1936 photograph—featuring eight of the nine Scottsboro Boys with NAACP representatives Juanita Jackson Mitchell, Laura Kellum, and Dr. Ernest W. Taggart—was taken inside the prison where the Scottsboro Boys were being held. Falsely accused of raping two white women aboard a freight train in 1931, the nine African American teenagers were tried in Scottsboro, Alabama, in what became a sensational case attracting national attention. Eight of the defendants were found guilty and sentenced to death; the trial of the ninth ended in a mistrial. These verdicts were widely condemned at the time. Before the young men eventually won their freedom, they would endure many years in prison and face numerous retrials and hearings. The ninth member of the group, Roy Wright, refused to pose for this portrait on account of his frustration with the slow pace of their legal battle. (Source: Smithsonian)”

Scottsboro Boys and Juanita Jackson Mitchell (1936)

Scottsboro Boys and Juanita Jackson Mitchell (1936)

Jan 04 2014

Poem of the Day: Some Things Actually Just Kill You…

Some
Things
Do
Not
Make
You
Stronger…
They
Just
Make
You
DEAD.

- For Tyshawn Carter.

Dec 28 2013

10 Creative Ways That Chicagoans Addressed Violence in 2013

** This is my final recap of 2013…

Chicago has been in the spotlight over the past few years as the epitome of urban violence. The city has been dubbed the “murder capital of the U.S.” even though this is actually untrue. I’ve written and will continue to write about the various organizing and advocacy efforts by Chicagoans to address interpersonal and structural/systemic violence. Lots of people in this city are working to address violence; many in very creative ways.

Today, I want to focus on some of the creative interventions to address violence in Chicago that I’ve either been part of or have otherwise come to my attention in 2013. Thousands of people were engaged through these projects. There were of course many other efforts that I left off this list. I invite you to submit your suggestions in the comments section. Think about how you can contribute to ending violence in your own communities and then get to work!

1. 500campaign

From NBC 5 Chicago:

After the murder totals in Chicago started racking up after January of this year, South Side native Bryant Cross decided he’d seen enough.

The 28-year-old speech communications professor started thinking of effective ways to spread an anti-violence message and came up with the 500campaign, head shots of Chicagoans with the slogan “Angry Because Over 500 Youth Were Murdered in Chicago.”

**Note: The 500 youth number cited is not at annual number. Over the course of 5 years about 500 young people under 20 years old were victims of homicide in Chicago. One is too many but it’s important to be clear about what these numbers represent.

500campaign (2013)

500campaign (2013)

See more photos on pinterest or instagram.

Below is the founder of the 500campaign, Bryant Cross, talking about his campaign:

2. How Long Will I Cry? A Play and A Book

According to the Steppenwolf Theatre website:

“Woven together from interviews gathered by journalist Miles Harvey and his students at DePaul University, How Long Will I Cry? provides raw, truthful insight into the problem of youth violence. By giving voice to those who know the tragic consequences of violence first-hand—families of the victims, residents of crime-ridden neighborhoods and especially young people—How Long Will I Cry? inspires all of us to join together in search of a solution.”

The play was performed for a month earlier this year and the stories have now been compiled into a book that is available for free to Chicagoans.

“The book contains interviews with 35 people, told in Studs Terkel-style first person: current and former gang members, parents and siblings of young people who have been killed, and cops, lawyers, nurses, and community activists who are working to stop the violence.”

How Long Will I Cry – Book Trailer from Big Shoulders Books on Vimeo.

3. Uproar Chicago: A Community-Curated Audio Collage About Chicago Violence

I initiated this project and solicited support and help from friends to execute it. We asked Chicagoans to summarize their feelings about violence in one sentence. We used a central hotline to gather responses from people across Chicago. The responses were assembled into audio collages. In late April, community members gathered to listen to the audio collage and to participate in a peace circle where we could discuss our experiences and the impacts of violence in our lives.

I talk more about the project here. Below is the main audio collage.

Visit Soundcloud to listen to all of the audio from this project.

Read more »

Dec 27 2013

10 Things To Know About Juvenile Justice & Youth Criminalization in 2013

Last week, I offered a summary of some of the key issues related to the prison industrial complex in 2013. Since the main focus of my work is actually juvenile justice & youth criminalization, I decided to make another list that addresses some key 2013 developments in those areas.

1. The U.S. youth incarceration rate continues to decline but we still lock up too many children.

One of the most heartening trends over the past decade has been the steady decrease in the use of incarceration to address youth crime and misbehavior.

youthincarceration

According to a new report:

“For the 2001-to-2011 ten-year period, the number of confined youth declined by 41% nationwide, or an annual average decline of 4.1% — a dramatic drop since 2000, when a record-setting 108,802 youth were held in detention centers awaiting trial or confined by the courts in juvenile facilities in the U.S. The nationwide decline in 2011 (from 70,793 to 61,423 youth) continues the trend from the previous year (the latest for which data is available), which showed youth confinement was reduced by 32% nationwide from 2001-2010.”

Unfortunately, poor black children remain disportionately targeted.

youthprisonbyrace

Since all credible research shows that incarceration and detention don’t work, many jurisdictions are relying more regularly on alternatives to youth incarceration.

2. School closings in urban centers overwhelmingly impacted youth of color (black children in particular)..

Victor Hugo has written that: “He who opens a school door, closes a prison.” It stands to reason that the reverse is also true: “He who closes a school door, opens a prison.” Chicago roiled in 2013 with grassroots opposition to the proposed closures of over 50 schools. Opponents contended that these school closings were racist as they would disproportionately target black students and increase the likelihood that they would be pushed out of school. Some background resources about Chicago’s school closings can be found here.

colorschoolclosures

Some of the most vocal opponents of school closures in Chicago, Philadelphia, D.C. etc… were students themselves. 9 year old Asean Johnson became a household name when he spoke out forcefully against Rahm Emanuel at a rally that I attended.

Students at Williams Elementary organized a sit-in to protest their school’s proposed closing.

Williams Elementary School Protest (2013)

Williams Elementary School Protest (2013)

In the end, Rahm Emanuel and his appointed school board shut down nearly 50 schools. This was the largest mass school closing in the U.S.

Bontemps Elementary by Bill Healy (WBEZ)

Bontemps Elementary by Bill Healy (WBEZ)

Read more »

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.

incarcerationnation

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 »

Nov 19 2013

Photos & Video: Picturing A World Without Prisons Opening Reception

As regular readers know, for the past few months, I’ve been curating an exhibition titled “Picturing a World without Prisons” with my friends at the Free Write Jail Arts & Literacy Program. On Friday, we had an opening reception for the exhibition and it was packed. We had a great time and were were so excited to feature artwork by youth incarcerated at the JTDC and artists on the outside who submitted photographs depicting a world without prisons. Below are some photographs documenting the opening reception.

photo by Sarah Jane Rhee (11/15/13)

photo by Sarah Jane Rhee (11/15/13)

photo by Sarah Jane Rhee (11.15.13)

photo by Sarah Jane Rhee (11.15.13)

Read more »

Oct 23 2013

Picturing A World Without Prisons: An Inside/Outside Exhibit (Nov 11-Dec 6)

Coming Soon! Hope to see you there.

WorldWithoutPrisons(1)

Picturing a World without Prisons

The U.S. is a prison nation. There is no other society in the history of humanity that has imprisoned more people. Over 2.2 million people are incarcerated in this country; representing an over 500% increase since 1970. This number excludes those we imprison in hundreds of immigrant detention centers. Our obsession with locking people up isn’t cheap. States spend over $50 billion a year just on their prison systems. The Federal government also spends tens of billions to police, prosecute, and imprison people.

Yet research and anecdotal evidence show that incarceration makes people worse and does not improve public safety. Instead of spending money on drug treatment programs, meaningful employment initiatives, health care, affordable housing, and public education, our tax dollars funnel the most vulnerable populations into the prison system so that they may languish with little-to-no access to needed resources. This is not justice. Nor is it humane. We believe that this must change.

We must dismantle the prison industrial complex. In order to do so, we have to envision what a world without prison can and should look like so that we can build that world together.

Through this exhibit which brings together the visions of incarcerated youth and people on the outside, we want to engage the public in imagining a world without prisons with us.

This exhibition is curated by Project NIA and Free Write Jail Arts & Literacy Program.

It will run from November 11 through December 6th at the HumanThread Center/Gallery for Nonviolence, Arts & Education, 1200 W. 35th street (Bridgeport Art Center, 5th floor)

Please join us on November 15th from 6 to 10 p.m. for the Opening Reception. RSVP HERE for the reception.

This event is part of Chicago Transformative Justice Fall and you can view other upcoming events HERE.