Thursday, December 22, 2011

Militarizing the Police

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Recent confrontations between members of the Occupy Movement and municipal police have highlighted the sophistication of contemporary law enforcement weaponry. This recent Daily Beast article provides a horrifying dose of context. Since 2001, the federal government has poured billions of dollars into local police departments, furnishing them with military-grade arsenals justified by "the least likely terrorist scenarios." Not only does this program leave departments armed to the teeth, but also, apparently, encourages the worst kinds of militaristic fantasizing:


"A grainy YouTube video from one of Clark’s recent competitions shows just how far the police transformation has come, displaying officers in battle fatigues, helmets, and multi-pocketed vests storming a hostile scene. One with a pistol strapped to his hip swings a battering ram into a door. A colleague lobs a flash-bang grenade into a field. Another officer, holding a pistol and wearing a rifle strapped to his back, peeks cautiously inside a bus. The images unfold to the pulsing, ominous soundtrack of a popular videogame, Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2. Though resembling soldiers in a far-flung war zone, the stars of this video are Massachusetts State Police troopers."

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

EC Joins Efforts to Block Lethal Injection Drugs

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Following Britain's lead, the European Commission has placed heavy restrictions on the sale of lethal injection drugs to American penitentiaries. This comes in the broader context both of a national shortage on key lethal injection drugs in the U.S., as well as an espoused desire by the European Union to see the death penalty abolished worldwide.

In addition to the obvious practical implications for executions in the U.S., I continue to wonder what impact this crisis will have on the rhetorical dynamics of capital punishment. Many abolitionists understandably worry that an emphasis on the method of execution simply leaves states scrambling for a more "humane" way to carry-out death sentences. However, this very scrambling may itself serve as a kind of "the Emperor has no clothes" moment when the state must actively account for the macabre corporeal deed they so often seek to sanitize.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Arrested by Twenty-Three

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Today's New York Times reports on a study finding nearly one third of Americans have been arrested by the time they reach twenty-three.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

No Execution for Mumia

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A major development in what was once the most contested and high-profile capital case in the United States: Philadelphia prosecutors have decided they will no longer pursue the death penalty against Mumia Abu Jamal. Jamal has been on Pennsylvania's death row since 1982 for murdering a white Philadelphia police officer named Daniel Faulkner in 1981. He has always maintained his innocence. His case has been a catalyst not only for an international campaign to save his life, but also for broader movements against the death penalty, the prison-industrial complex, and other sites of economic and racial disparity. Efforts to save his life have always been met by equally, if not more aggressive campaigning by Faulkner's family and the Fraternal Order of Police to hasten his execution.

Jamal is a prolific activist and author in his own right.

More here.

Prisons and Immigrant Labor

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This past June, Alabama passed what is, by virtually all measures, the strictest immigration bill in the United States. While it was passed in the name of opening jobs for "native citizens," the law has had a disastrous impact on state agriculture--an industry disproportionately reliant on cheap, undocumented immigrant labor. As a solution, the Alabama Agriculture Department is considering using prisoners as a source of cheap, potential free labor.

Read more here.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Enlightenment Values, Violence, and the Status-Quo

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Critics of the prison-industrial complex, especially those versed in mass media and popular culture scholarship, must often reckon with the gross disparity between the violent world portrayed on television and movies, and the relative decline in violent crime over the past several decades. This review, appearing in The Hindu, of Steven Pinker's book The Better Angels of our Nature makes a valuable, brilliant argument about how we define violence and how that shapes even the most cosmopolitan notions about the world we live in. Here's an excerpt:
As Judith Butler puts it in Precarious Life, “To the extent that we commit violence, we are acting on another, putting the other at risk, causing the other damage, threatening to expunge the other.” Obviously, in societies where capital is what empowers, and states are committed to creating “wealth” by aiding capital, it is often not necessary or even desirable to opt for physical violence. Your boss needs to fire you, not to beat you up. The state needs to move those “tribals” out, so that their ancestral lands can be “developed.” Actually, it is you who — on being fired or “relocated” — might want to beat someone up, and would be rightly restrained by the police from doing so. 
Pinker's book will be popular; it can be used to overlook or justify the violence of the status quo.

Friday, December 2, 2011

The Flaws of Eyewitness Testimony

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For several years now, experts have been commenting on the serious limitations of eyewitness testimony in criminal cases. The issue rose to national prominence following the recent execution of Troy Davis (see recent posts here and here). Here's an excellent article, rich with links, detailing just how flawed our eyes and memories can be.

Martina Correia, 1967-2011

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Readers of this blog will undoubtedly be familiar with the Troy Davis case. The State of Georgia executed Troy two months ago in spite of overwhelming evidence calling his murder conviction into question. 

One of the reasons Troy's case was the the highly visible catalyst for mobilization it was the tireless involvement of his sister, Martina Correia. At the same time she was leading rallies, talking to journalists, and pursuing every other conceivable strategy to save her brother's life, Marina bravely fought her own breast cancer diagnosis. Eleven years ago, doctors told her she had six months to live. Succumbing yesterday, she survived long enough to pour every inch of herself into Troy's cause, as well as that of death penally abolition.

While I won't overstate my work with Martina, we attended a few meetings and conferences together, her presence in the anti-death penalty movement was palpable and inspiring. It still is. She is living proof that those most intimately connected to the structural violence of mass incarceration and state killing can, should, and indeed must lead the struggles for their abolition.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Race, State Violence, and the Occupy Movement

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Check out this recent article from San Francisco's Bay View newspaper. It's a challenging but important commentary on the strategies and communicative dynamics of the Occupy movement vis-a-vis law enforcement and violence.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

The Case of Rodney Reed

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During the four years I lived in Austin, Texas and participated in the local anti-death penalty movement, one of the most troubling cases around which I organized was that of Rodney Reed. Consider this mise en scene: A black man (Rodney) convicted of raping and murdering the white fiancé (Stacey Stites) of a local white police officer (Jimmy Fennell) who is presently serving time for an unrelated rape/kidnapping conviction. The story that unfolds is every bit as provocative as this eerily familiar southern equation suggests. It is the ghost of Jim Crow on a stick; a Texas version of To Kill a Mockingbird.

You can learn more details about the Reed case from this excellent piece of investigative journalism from the Austin Chronicle. There's more concise information to be found at this activist website.

For everything unique about the Reed case, there are many more that are tragically familiar. Please take a moment to learn more about the case and sign this petition.

(If you have already signed a petition in the past for Rodney, please not that this one is a) NEW and b) part of an official national campaign around his case. In other words, please sign it!)

Sunday, November 13, 2011

PCARE Meeting at NCA

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For those of you attending this week's National Communication Association National Convention in New Orleans, please attend our annual, largely informal, PCARE meeting!

Where: Sheraton Lobby
When: Friday, Nov 18, 5:00pm (NOTE: This is a change from the original posting, which incorrectly read 5:30pm)

We'll do our best to grab a comfortable and reasonably discreet spot. We'll also try to find a way to make ourselves visible to any newcomers.

See you there!

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

UN Investigatory Backs Ban on Solitary Confinement

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Yesterday, from the BBC:

"Considering the severe mental pain or suffering solitary confinement may cause, it can amount to torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment when used as a punishment, during pre-trial detention, indefinitely or for a prolonged period, for persons with mental disabilities or juveniles," he said.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Execution in Oregon

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Gary Haugen is scheduled to be executed on December 6th. He will be the first man to be executed in the State of Oregon since 1997, when Harry Charles Moore abandoned his appeals. Gary was sentenced to the Oregon State Penitentiary almost 3o years ago, at the age of 19. He was sentenced to death a few years ago, after he and Jason Brumwell were convicted of murdering fellow inmate David Polin. He has abandoned his appeals voluntarily.

Voluntarily. What does "voluntary" mean in the U.S. prison system?
What sort of system do we have when "choice" is equated with "death"?
We spend $28,390 per year on each prisoner in the penitentiary. A 6 x 9 cell and diabetic diet of TV, anti-depressants, fried food, illegal drugs and gang culture is what most receive. Oh, and the exercise yard - that hour of outside air and light. Hardly rehabilitative.

No wonder Gary Haugen doesn't want to keep appealing. No wonder he doesn't want to go back to the general population. No wonder he doesn't want to live on death row any longer. No wonder.

Gary Haugen is a reminder of the work we all have to do:
  • the work of making prisons places where men and women who have a chance can find a way through the violence, fear, and victimage to hope and opportunity;
  • the work of standing by and standing up for children who need advocates (http://www.casaforchildren.org);
  • the work of dismantling the prison industrial complex and creating institutions that reflect our values and beliefs about human possibility;
  • the work of providing support and resources to victims and their families;
  • and the humble work of befriending.
Gary Haugen is giving up on this work while hoping to draw a little more attention to the need for it to continue. But many of us here, outside prison walls, are not so tired and defeated. We cannot give up.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Funeral Fund for Troy Davis

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Although the State of Georgia has yet to release his body, Troy Davis's family is solely bearing the burden of funeral expenses following his execution last Wednesday. If you are so inclined, you can make a donation via PayPal to help them cover these costs.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Troy Davis, Joe Hill, and the Politics of Mourning/Organizing

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As readers of this blog will undoubtedly know, the state of Georgia executed Troy Anthony Davis at 11:08 pm EST last night. His death is the tragic culmination of a massive grassroots campaign, led largely by Troy's family, committed to halting his execution. I won't belabor the details, but his case for innocence is positively overwhelming--so much so that as unlikely a figure as a former FBI director called for clemency.

Earlier in the evening yesterday, I attended a remarkable and inspiring event at the Reuther Library on Wayne State's campus. The Reuther is home to the nation's largest and most comprehensive archives on labor and urban studies. On this particular evening, Bill Adler led a discussion surrounding his new biography of IWW icon Joe Hill. Executed in 1915, Hill faced a Utah firing squad in spite of a virtually non-existent prosecutorial case against him. Adler dedicates a signifcant portion of his book to deconstructing the state's dubious claims, adding credence to the claim that Hill's was a political execution designed to silence his union activism with the IWW.

There are obvious differences between the Davis and Hill cases. Davis and his family only became politically active when his life was literally on the line, though they quickly came to recognize how their story was fundamentally linked to all the tragedies that unfold in the prison-industrial complex. Hill, on the other hand, remains the IWW's most important songwriter and, by most measures, patron saint. Both, however, are martyrs to a fundamentally broken criminal justice apparatus.

Troy Davis's case received unprecedented levels of international attention. If there is a silver lining in this dark cloud of state killing (or lynching), it lies in the possibility that death penalty abolitionists will orient their outrage and disappointment toward ending capital punishment. Such a hope is beautifully embodied in Joe Hill's "Last Will," written shortly before his execution:

My will is easy to decide,
For there is nothing to divide.
My kin don't need to fuss and moan--
"Moss does not cling to a rolling stone."
My body? Ah, if I could choose,
I would to ashes it reduce,
And let the merry breezes blow
My dust to where some flowers grow.
Perhaps some fading flower then
Would come to life and bloom again.
This is my last and final will,
Good luck to all of you.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Schools and Prisons

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My kids went back to school last week and this sparked some reflections on how lucky they are. The schools they attend are fairly well-funded, diverse, warm learning environments. Most of the children who attend these schools will go on to college, and they are treated from the start as creative, independent, valuable human beings by the staff and teachers.

This is not the case for a vast number of students across the country. Many schools, particularly those in urban or poverty-stricken areas, are run like prison training facilities, with rigid “zero-tolerance” policies, panopticon-like supervision, harsh “security” policies, and rote instruction meant only to prepare students for standardized tests or low-level service careers.

My kids are privileged. They are privileged by race and class, and one of them is privileged by virtue of gender. In their schools they are offered opportunities to explore their identities, and to become creative, thinking, agents. I feel so fortunate that my children will have these opportunities and that their schooling will be a positive, nurturing experience. But I also can’t help thinking about the millions of children who are trapped in the school to prison pipeline that Erica Meiners writes eloquently about in her book, The Right to Be Hostile: Schools, Prisons, and the Making of Public Enemies (Routledge, 2007).

I urge every parent/citizen to read Meiners’ expose. Whether your kids are lucky, like mine, or trapped in the type of oppressive environments that Meiners analyzes, her revelations will enrage you, and, just possibly, spur you to take action to transform the way we are “educating” millions of students.

Monday, September 5, 2011

Arizona DOC's New Fundraising Gambit

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We must always be attentive to the financial aspects of incarceration, on both the institutional and personal registers. Over the next few months, I am going to be sharing a series of posts about prison and political economies, on topics including the trend to privatization, prisoners’ labor, and the rhetorical pitfalls and possibilities of using economic rationales to advocate for prison and legal reforms.

Miles, guards, and cell doors aren’t the only barriers separating people who are incarcerated from their families and friends. The cost of visiting—whether wages lost by taking off work, or the price of travel—can be prohibitive for many.

Arizona has just added to the financial toll by instituting a $25 “background check fee” for anyone over 18 who wants to visit someone incarcerated in the state. (The New York Times article is here: http://www.nytimes.com/2011/09/05/us/05prison.html?_r=1&ref=us)

To summarize, the state passed legislation allowing the Department of Corrections to issue this charge (and to charge a 1% fee on money deposited into prisoners’ spending accounts). The DOC requires visitors to pay the $25 via Western Union or to send a money order, and when payment is made the applications for visitation will be processed. The DOC is authorized to charge the fee one time per visitor.

These “background check fees” aren’t for background checks. All visitors already had to provide personal identification information, and Arizona’s Department of Public Safety already offers free background checks for people who submit their fingerprints. The fees are a ‘creative’ way to raise funds for prison maintenance and repairs. The state of Arizona has a $1.6 billion budget deficit this year, and according to Wendy Baldo, chief of staff for the state Senate, the DOC “needs about $150 million” that the state can’t provide.

The Times reports that an Arizona prison advocacy group called Middle Ground Prison Reform (www.middlegroundprisonreform.org) has filed suit against the DOC on the grounds that this fee is tantamount to a discriminatory tax on a single group, because it’s intended generate revenue “for general public purposes” but only takes money from people who are directly impacted by incarceration.

Barrett Marson, an AZDOC spokesman, claims that “no complaints [about the fees] have been reported from inmates.” Marson also claims that the fee “helps to ensure our prisons remain safe environments for staff, inmates, and visitors.” There are two important rhetorical themes that frequently recurr in discourse about prisons evident in Marson’s comments: silence and safety.

Construing the absence of complaints as an indicator of acceptance, or even endorsement, is a false and misleading supposition. It glosses over the ways in which prisons actively silence the people who are held within—the implicit threat of retribution for complaints is real, and the lack of access to communication channels is real. (Bryan recently posted about Facebook’s decision to shut down inmates’ pages, and this Times article about the Arizona fees does not feature any prisoners’ voices.) “They aren’t complaining” is not an acceptable justification for imposing yet another hardship upon incarcerated people and their families and friends.

And the operational definition of “safety” that Marson uses entails containment, separation, and control. This is a rhetorical attempt to obscure the harm done to incarcerated individuals, their loved ones, the communities they are part of, and the nation as a whole by the American prison industrial complex. Marson’s remark exemplifies the idea that the condition of safety will be derived from an updated, enlarged building of cells.

A more moral and inclusive definition of safety recognizes that the condition could result from a more merciful and flexible code of drug laws, action to quell institutionalized racism in policing and sentencing, and more community integration and support for people who break the law. As David C. Fathi, the director of the ACLU’s National Prison Project, remarks in this Times article, “We know that one of the best things you can do if you want people to go straight and lead a law-abiding life when they get out of prison is to continue family contact while they’re in prison.” Making visitation harder by imposing fees like the one in Arizona is not a viable strategy for pursuing “safety.”

Middle Ground reports that this fee appears to be the first of its kind anywhere in the U.S., but given the number of states suffering from budget shortfalls and the high financial cost of incarceration, I don’t think it will be the last. As a community of activists and educators, we cannot afford be silent about such issues.

Please consider writing to the Arizona DOC and making a complaint about the fee. The Media Relations office for the AZDOC can be reached at media@azcorrections.gov and the director’s name is Charles L. Ryan.

Please consider supporting Middle Ground Prison Reform in their lawsuit against the DOC. You can join the organization or make a contribution by visiting this page: http://www.middlegroundprisonreform.org/join/index.html
Director Donna Leone Hamm can be reached here: middlegroundprisonreform@msn.com

Saturday, September 3, 2011

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The new issue of Peace Review (volume 23, issue 3) is dedicated to prison issues and social justice. It includes articles by Helen Codd, Laura Magnani, Bonnie Kerness of the American Friends Service Committee, and, um, me. My article, "The Alternatives to Violence Project's Work for Peace Behind Bars," talks about the AVP organization's work in transforming conflict and my own experiences with it. It can be found here.

Friday, August 19, 2011

West Memphis Three

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Many readers of this blog will be familiar with the case of the West Memphis Three, most popularly represented in the Paradise Lost documentaries. The defendants apparently worked out a deal with prosecutors to enter a new plea of guilty, receive 18-year sentences, and be released for time served since their convictions. As CNN reports, this arrangement leaves individuals on both sides of the controversy unhappy.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Facebook Cooperating with Prisons

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The past several years have seen a great deal of moral panic surrounding prisoner access to illicit cell phones and/or social networking sites (by proxy). Cell phones, prison administrators argue, are used to coordinate crimes on the outside or escapes from the inside, whereas MySpace and Facebook pages enable the incarcerated to stalk their victims. As a response, Facebook recently agreed to work with California prison officials to dismantle inmates' pages.

In my experience, social networking has been a vital mechanism for opening the closed world of prisons to public scrutiny. Not only do sites like Facebook allow inmates to communicate about prison conditions, but can also function as mechanisms for organizing around individual cases. For example, in 2007, I was part of a large scale campaign that successfully halted an execution in Texas; social networking sites like Facebook and YouTube were indispensable organizing tools.


For the past quarter of a century, the playbook has been simple, direct, and frighteningly successful. Play the fear card, mention the word "victim," and shut down rational debate. It's unclear to me how anyone could "stalk their victims" through Facebook. This is a perfect example of dragging a particularly stinky red herring across the trail, something prison bureaucrats are wont to do.

I don't want to naively suggest that social media are never used to harm others; however, such tools are also capable of empowering public scrutiny of the criminal justice system. Unfortunately, the very social networking site that is so widely credited with advancing the cause of revolution in Northern Africa and the Middle East is now complicit in closing public access to a human rights catastrophe on its own turf.

Drugs and Child Neglect

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The New York Times ran this important article today, highlighting the relationship between minor drug arrests and child neglect cases:

For these parents, the child welfare system has become an alternate system of justice, with legal standards on marijuana that appear to be tougher than those of criminal courts or, to some extent, of society at large.

This phenomenon also appears to have a pronounced racial dynamic, suggesting more entrenched assumptions about race and parenthood may be at play:

Over all, the rate of marijuana use among whites is twice as high as among blacks and Hispanics in the city, the data show, but defense lawyers said these cases were rarely if ever filed against white parents.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Atlantic article: The Brain on Trial

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Recent advances in cognitive neuroscience suggest the need to question assumptions about volition and "free will" in many criminal cases, and seems to support the idea of "customized sentencing" as well as medical intervention for some prisoners. I can't help wondering what Foucault would say about these conclusions!

Saturday, August 6, 2011

Convictions in New Orleans Police Bridge Shooting Case

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A federal jury has convicted five current and former New Orleans police officers for opening fire on unarmed residents amid the chaos following Hurricane Katrina. The New York Times describes the horrifying scene back in 2005:

Several of the officers then chased Ronald and Lance Madison, two brothers, to the other side of the bridge, where Mr. Faulcon shot Ronald, a 40-year-old mentally disabled man, in the back. Sergeant Bowen was convicted of stomping him on the back as he lay dying.

Much of the officers' defense relied on a familiar refrain regarding police violence: officers should not be punished for their instincts under such dire circumstances. Louisiana U.S. Attorney Jim Letten claimed the exact opposite is true, stating, “Who can we count on when our society is threatened... If we can’t depend on [the police], who can we depend on?”

Alternatives to Violence Project on NPR

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Peace Talks Radio, the anchor program of Good Radio Shows, Inc., recently devoted a one-hour program to the Alternatives to Violence Project. The segment features interviews with former inmates James Alexander and Carl Irons, and with Pat Hardy, director of AVP California. The program will be sent to more than 150 affiliate radio stations throughout the country (the station list is at http://www.goodradioshows.org/stations.htm).

The Alternatives to Violence Project is a volunteer organization that offers workshops on conflict transformation and nonviolence in prisons and conflict zones across the US and around the world. In AVP workshops, civilians and incarcerated people learn together.

For more on this organization, read Wendy Jason's excellent piece (in which I am quoted) for Change.org:
http://criminaljustice.change.org/blog/view/the_alternatives_to_violence_project_a_path_towards_peace

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Reflections on Norway

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As Bryan's most recent post explains, Norway is continuing to make international headlines not only for the tragic circumstances surrounding the loss of innocent lives but also for their "unconventional" approach to incarceration.

I have been fortunate enough to spend time in prisons both in the US and Norway. The differences couldn't be any more pronounced. The contrasts are numerous. Below, I articulate my perceptions of the three most distinct differences.

Appearance
In the US I had to drive for miles down long dusty roads before even reaching the prison grounds. The prisons were typically "out of sight out of mind." In Norway, the feel was very different. The prison I visited was nestled in this lovely little neighborhood. I noticed children riding their bikes by the prison as we entered. The level of fear that is palpable in the US simply wasn't present in Norway.

Inside the experiences continued to differ. In the US I walked through a metal detector, removed my shoes, and had to leave my keys and cell phone in a locker. The inside of the prisons had 100 year old barred cells or newer cement block rooms. In Norway, the prison staff (and the people in general) were not suspicious. They believed that we as researchers had no intention to manipulate or harm any one. The cells felt like college dorm rooms. They were private spaces for the incarcerated individuals to get away from everyone else in the prison. They each papered their walls with personal items (pictures, posters, etc). They had private showers. They were allowed to wear their own clothes. These perks are not allowed in the US prison system. As one correctional officer explained, Norwegians don't strip prisoners of their identities.

Attitude
The attitudes regarding incarceration and the prison system are starkly different. In Norway, being a correctional officer is a highly respected, sought after, and desirable profession. The job does not come with the stigma so often associated with COs here in the US. I would guess that part of the reason for the difference is that Norwegians don't see incarcerated individuals as distinctly different from themselves. They simply view people as people. In fact, several correctional officers in Norway emphasized that prisoners were people just like them, but they had made some mistakes. The social hierarchy that exists in many other cultures is far more muted in Norwegian society. In the words of one Norwegian prison employee, "just because someone has made a bad choice does not make him a bad person."

Aims
Simply put~ most US prisons are designed for punishment whereas Norwegian prisons seek to rehabilitate inmates.

Notably, there are prisons in the US that have a strong focus on rehabilitation (e.g., One private prison I visited in TX focused on behavior modification). However, these facilities are not in the majority.

In Norway, however, most of the programs offer various types of drug and alcohol rehabilitation programs. Additionally, prisoners live relatively "normal" lives. They are arguably more prepared to succeed on the outside since they are not completely isolated from the "world" while incarcerated. Many inmates are even allowed to go on "vacation" from prison (or furlough). They take unmonitored leave from prison to visit family and return after their time (usually a week) is up. This article highlights some of the other benefits afforded prisoners in Norwegian prisons. I personally did not encounter a rock wall, but many of the other examples were true to my own experience.

This post is full of personal reflections based on my research experiences. Overall, I truly believe that the Norwegians are doing something right, and I would certainly argue that we can learn something from them.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Norway's "Soft on Crime" Policies

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We're about two weeks removed from Anders Breivik's shocking wave of violence in Norway. Understandably, public discourse surrounding the bombing in Oslo and mass shooting at a Labor Party youth camp has been widespread and diverse. Many have speculated that Breivik's massacre--executed in pursuance of an extreme right-wing, Christian fundamentalist, anti-Islamic agenda--is symptomatic of a broader rise of nationalist right in Europe. Others, incredulously, have used the mass killings as an opportunity to advance precisely the kinds of xenophobic nonsense that motivated Breivik on his rampage.

Of interest to readers of this blog will be another trajectory of thought; several news outlets have suggested that Breivik's horrific crimes will prompt Norway to reappraise its "tolerant" criminal justice system. Norway, unlike the United States, approaches crime with an emphasis on rehabilitation (a concept the U.S. has all but abandoned in its prisons). The nation's facilities generally have no bars on their windows, resemble college dormitories more than traditional prisons, and are staffed by well-trained individuals responsible not just for keeping order, but for fostering productive relationships with the incarcerated. Indeed, this is the polar opposite of a culture reared on America's Most Wanted, Willie Horton, and other spectacular "tough on crime" discourses. Furthermore, a "life" sentence in Norway is, on average, 21 years; meaning Breivik will almost certainly not die in prison.

Few honest observers would argue that the American model is superior to Norways. While the U.S. rate of recidivism, or repeat offenses, falls somewhere between 50 and 60 percent, Norway's is a mere 20 percent. Nordic crime rates, though increasing in recent years, remain much lower than ours.

Nonetheless, western media outlets appear to be turning Norway's tragedy back on itself; surely, a nation that treats its criminals so leniently will take a second look at their policies in the wake of the horrors of July 22. One can only hope that Norway's own grace under tragedy, manifested in its leaders' and publics' determination to uphold their tradition of law and order, might function as an object lesson for a nation whose staggering prison population (the largest in the world) has resulted in prison system at war with itself.

Friday, July 22, 2011

Statement by Mumia Abu Jamal on the Pelican Bay Hunger Strike

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"Dying For Sunlight" (Pelican Bay Hunger Strike)

Recorded 7-17-11

Today, at the notorious California super-maximum prison, Pelican Bay, hundreds of prisoners are on a hunger strike. As of July 1, 2011 a number of men ceased eating state meals in protest of horrendously long-term confinement, government repression, lack of programs and the hated gang affiliation rules.

According to California Prison Focus, the health of some the men are dangerously deteriorating. Some have ceased drinking, as well as eating and haven’t urinated in days. Some are threatened by renal failure, which can result in death.

Why? The demands of the strikers seem relatively tame, which gives us some insight into the level of repression. The five core demands are:

1. Individual instead of group responsibility.
2. Abolition of the “gang-debriefing” policy, which endangers both those who debrief and/or their families.
3. An end to long-term solitary confinement.
4. Adequate food, and
5. Constructive programs, such as art, phone privileges and the like.

A sub-demand is adequate natural sunlight – sunlight. There are few things more torturous than dying by starvation. These men are killing themselves potentially for fresh air and sunlight, and about a third of California prisoners, 11 out of 33 prisons, have joined them.

Contact the Prisoner Hunger Strike Solidarity Coalition to find out how to support this effort for human rights. On the web at: prisonerhungerstrikesolidarity.wordpress.com

From Death Row, this is Mumia Abu Jamal.

PLEASE CONTACT:
International Concerned Family & Friends of MAJ
P.O. Box 19709
Philadelphia, PA 19143
Phone - 215-476-8812/ Fax - 215-476-6180
E-mail - icffmaj@aol.com
AND OFFER YOUR SERVICES!

Send our brotha some LOVE and LIGHT at:
Mumia Abu-Jamal
AM 8335
SCI-Greene
175 Progress Drive
Waynesburg, PA 15370

WE WHO BELIEVE IN FREEDOM CAN *NOT* REST!!

http://www.prisonradio.org/7-17-11DyingForSunlight.html

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Petition: Pelican Bay hunger strike protesting solitary confinement

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I'd like to pass along a message from the National Religious Coalition Against Torture:

For nearly three weeks, prisoners in California’s Pelican Bay State Prison have waged a hunger strike to protest their conditions of confinement including long-term solitary confinement. They have been joined by prisoners from a dozen other California prisons. Many of these prisoners are held in long-term solitary confinement which is a form of torture. So far, state officials have not taken action to address the prisoners’ concerns about abusive treatment.

While the hunger strike is focused on the treatment of prisoners in California, inhumane conditions exist in prisons and jails across the country. In particular, tens of thousands of prisoners are held in prolonged solitary confinement – a situation which can cause long-term physical and psychological damage to prisoners.

Call for an end to the use of prolonged solitary confinement.

Please add your voice to the chorus of people of faith who are calling for a change in the treatment of prisoners. NRCAT has produced a new statement asking federal and state governments to end the use of prolonged solitary confinement. We are distributing this statement to people in all 50 states, with plans to deliver the list of endorsements to governors, state legislators, and prison officials as an appeal to improve the treatment of prisoners in all 50 states. Please sign the statement today!

Let's work to end the inhumane and barbaric use of prolonged solitary confinement.

Sign the petition at:

Visit the NRCAT website:
http://www.nrcat.org/

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Prison Conditions and Inmate Resistance

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Two important stories on troubling prison conditions and inmate efforts to change them:

First, in Jamaica, HIV-positive prisoners are speaking out against what they describe has horrific conditions. One anonymous prisoner states, "If the doctor said allow him [the inmate's] parents or family or whoever to bring him fruits, or food, or whatever,whichever thing his system can contain, they don't approve it. The superintendent and the people that are in high place constantly try to turn it down."

Meanwhile, prisoners at the Bay Area "supermax" Pelican Bay Security Housing Unit are staging a hunger strike to protest living conditions in the facility. Yesterday, the hunger strikers rejected a proposal from the California Department of Corrections & Rehabilitation.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Tennis at San Quentin

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So often the media focuses on negative stories of incarcerated individuals. We hear about prison riots, smuggling of contraband, and the occasional escape. We rarely, however, hear about some of the positive things that go on behind the bars.

Sports Illustrated recently ran a story about the tennis team at San Quentin State Prison. The author of the article, Marc Howard, went to San Quentin to play with and alongside the inmates.

My favorite quote in the article...
"Playing tennis in the notorious San Quentin sounds oxymoronic. But within the confines of a tennis court, these men are learning to play inside the lines. And tennis may be giving some of them the hope of finding a new direction in their lives."

I think one reason I appreciated this article was that the author didn't just end there. Instead, he took the time to write about the individuals on the tennis team. He acknowledge their skills and abilities. He didn't simply group them together and call them inmates or prisoners. He talked about them as people. Flawed people, but people.

Click here to read more.

Friday, July 8, 2011

On Mental Competency

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Gary Haugen waived his further appeals, thus “volunteering for execution” by the State of Oregon. Gary has been in Oregon’s State Pen since he was about 19 years old and was sentenced to death with a co-defendant for the murder of inmate David Polin in 2007.


Now graying slightly and facing the prospects of spending his 50th birthday on Death Row next spring, having recently lost loved ones and family members, Gary has had his execution postponed by a State Supreme Court. The Court ordered a mental competency hearing and reinstatement of the legal advisors Gary had dismissed before Judge Guimond issued the execution order last month.


Gary Haugen is seeking execution. There are many people (they blog, too) who applaud the swift application of death as justice. As an abolitionist who would rather have a world in which people get a chance, where we work hard and do the little things we can to give people good chances, I don’t want to see Gary Haugen – or any inmate – executed.


At the same time, knowing Gary has made me acutely aware of the ways in which prison so often contributes to, rather than mitigates against, criminality. Death Row is toxic in other ways. Both strike me as the kind of place in which it is tough to be mentally competent. And it is hard to know how someone would be different if you’ve only even known them depressed or anti-depressed, dis-illusioned or delusional, living in a cage in one of the cloudiest, rainiest, and most hopeless cities in the U.S. What passes for mental competency on Death Row? I can’t help thinking of the pacified and passive men released from Nurse Ratchett’s ward in One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest.


Gary has given reasons for abandoning his appeals. Some are marked by a sense of grandeur, others are practical and purposive. From news articles and our correspondence, I think there are many reasons, including:

· A desire to call attention to the politics of the death penalty;

· A need to feel he’s done something meaningful;

· An effort to publicize the injustices and hypocrisies of the criminal justice system;

· A recognition of the suffering his existence causes to his victims’ loved ones;

· A sense of guilt and remorse;

· A fear of his own anger and hopelessness;

· A need to be seen as noble;

· An unwillingness to do the hard work of transformation;

· A difficult environment and fatalistic worldview.


So we await the results of the hearing and I cross out the words that seem obscene in my calendar: “Gary’s last weekend,” “Gary’s execution” and consider the re-writing. And then I think of the young woman whose husband is gone forever, who hears the same radio story I do, but differently.


Sister Helen Prejean reminds us of the importance of reaching out to victims, too. But I’m not sure how to do that – for it also seems obscene to ask the widow of my friend’s (alleged) murder victim to “friend” me on facebook. It occurs to me that our introduction may be on the occasion of Gary’s execution.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

The prison-industrial complex in Hawaii

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Hawaii has long shipped its prisoners overseas to privately owned mainland facilities. This is particularly problematic for members of Hawaii's native islander population, who often live under crushing poverty and cannot afford to visit loved ones behind bars.

Taking steps to further implement this problematic policy, Hawaii has signed a multi-million dollar contract with the Corrections Corporation of America to house inmates in Arizona. Prison scholars and activists should be on the lookout for other states, based on financial hardship, to similarly outsource incarceration.

Friday, June 24, 2011

Going to prison for healthcare

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A North Carolina man robbed a bank for $1 in order to be arrested and sentenced to prison. His rationale? He felt it was the only way he could secure medical treatment for a variety of health issues. This is a fascinating and heartbreaking demonstration of the complex role the prison plays in the broader circuitries of civil society.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Jimmy Carter on the Global Drug War

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Check out this New York Times editorial by former President Jimmy Carter, in which he calls for a radical transformation in the way America deals with drugs.

The latest in the Protess case

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The legal and academic drama continues surrounding David Protess, former director of the Medill Innocence Project at Northwestern University. The work of Protess and his journalism students was instrumental in several exonerations in Illinois, including several death penalty cases. These exonerations, in turn, helped motivate then-Illinois Governor George Ryan to empty that state's death row in 2003. Whereas Protess's accusers claim they are defending the integrity of the academy and legal system, the now-retired journalism professor insists he is the victim of a politically-motivated witch hunt.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Yes Magazine - Beyond Prisons issue

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The current issue of Yes Magazine is available online and its focus is "Beyond Prisons." It contains articles on restorative justice, re-entry, arts, and many other interesting items. Find it here: http://www.yesmagazine.org/peace-justice/beyond-prisons

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Protest and the signifiers of criminality

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For my money, one of the best blogs chronicling the so-called Arab Spring is 3Arabawy. This brief entry documents activists' response Egyptian officials' attempts to brand protestors as "criminals" and "thugs." Cairo's military government, of course, is not the first regime to re-cast grassroots activists as criminal threats in need of policing.

Monday, June 6, 2011

Blackwater takes suburbia?

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Just spotted this story in my local paper. A once-affluent neighborhood currently sustaining a sharp increase in crime has hired its own military-style security firm to patrol the streets in Hummers. The write-up is a borderline puff piece, ignoring the wide-ranging implications of militarizing suburbia.

Saturday, June 4, 2011

Prison in Venezuela

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This is a positively fascinating article from yesterday's New York Times. It profiles a prison in Porlamar, Venezuela where inmates, by many measures, run the show. In one respect, the facility is a den of hedonism that promotes precisely the kinds of practices that led these men and women (who have plutonic and romantic contact with each other) to be incarcerated in the first place. On the other hand, the facility is significantly safer and more tranquil than others in the Latin American country. It would be interesting to see some recidivism figures.

Sunday, May 29, 2011

Interesting book!

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Also at the AVP national conference, the keynote speaker was Laura Magnani of the American Friends Service Committee. Magnani is the coauthor of a book titled, "Beyond Prisons: A New Interfaith Paradigm for Our Failed Prison System," written with Harmon L. Wray. The book critiques the current prison system, traces the history of the penal system, offers strong ethical and moral assessments of it, and lays out a new paradigm of criminal justice based on restorative justice and reconciliation. The authors put forward a 12-point plan for change and invoke our responsibilities as citizens and as a nation to provide remediation rather than mere retributive incarceration, answerable to the common good and the justice of God. Speaking purely for myself, and with apologuies to my agnostic or athiest friends, I am increasingly finding a spiritual imperative in our prison work, so was delighted to encounter this book. (Also, I think such work can help those of us on the left to dialogue productively with our possible allies on the right who are also active in prison work...)

The Poetic Justice Project

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I'm at the annual national conference of the Alternatives to Violence Project in San Francisco. AVP is a wonderful volunteer organization that offers workshops in nonviolence in prisons and communities around the US and 50 nations. Tonight's entertainment was a terrific performance of "Off the Hook," a play about prison violence presented by actors of the Poetic Justice Project, a collaboration of formerly incarcerated writers, artists, musicians and actors. Tonight's play was written by Deborah Tobola with music by Shawn Collins. It was fantastic! Though many AVP members have been volunteering in prisons for years, it was still a revelation. But even better, in my opinion, is the fact that Poetic Justice performs in high schools and community settings and they are raising consciousness everywhere they go. Check them out!

Monday, May 23, 2011

U.S. Supreme Court Upholds Three-Judge Ruling on California Prisons

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In 2009, a federal three-judge panel ordered California to dramatically reduce its prison population, citing that the nation's most expensive and overcrowded system had swelled to constitutionally dubious proportions. Unsurprisingly, the Golden State's government challenged the ruling all the way to the nation's highest court. Today, the justices, in a 5-4 ruling, upheld the ruling.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Craig Haney on Prison Reform

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Craig Haney, who conducted the legendary Stanford Prison Experiment, co-authored this article arguing for local control of prisons in California.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

New Book on Central Park Jogger Case

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In 1989, five young men of color were tried and convicted of the brutal rape of a young white investment banker. The case sparked a profound wave of racialized hysteria, including full-page newspaper advertisements--financed by none other than Donald Trump--calling for the execution of the five suspects. In 2002, after another man confessed to acting alone in the attack, the state vacated the original convictions. This new book, written by Sarah Burns, details how the "same racist language that had been used to justify lynchings earlier in the century" helped create a climate of fear and irrationality around this case.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

This Week in Civil Liberties

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Two troubling reports on the civil liberties front this week...

First, the U.S. Supreme Court, in an 8-1 decision, just ruled that police may forcefully enter a residence without a warrant based on "exigent circumstances" such as the smell of marijuana or the probably sound of folks destroying evidence. The Kentucky Supreme Court had earlier decided in favor of the defendants, arguing that the police created the exigent circumstance when they knocked on the door. Justice Ginsburg was the lone dissent.

At the state level, the Indiana Supreme Court ruled that citizens have no constitutional right to resist unlawful (i.e. warrantless) entries by law enforcement. Critics argue that the 3-2 decision undermines a legal principle as old as the Magna Carta.

Monday, May 16, 2011

The Demise of Habeas Corpus?

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This article, written by three Cornell law professors, just appeared in the National Law Review. It reviews the disastrous consequences of the Clinton-era Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act and warns against recent budget-driven arguments in favor of further curtailing habeas rights.

In the news...

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The struggle against the prison-industrial complex is often fraught with ambivalent avenues toward social change. Two recent articles speak to such tensions:

Michelle Alexander, author of The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness (check out Megan Bernard's recent review on this blog), offers this powerful and challenging editorial on what she calls the "human rights nightmare" of mass incarceration. She argues that recent pushes toward reform, while encouraging in some ways, are also problematic because "the changing tide is best explained by perceived white interests." Drawing on Martin Luther King, Jr.'s iconic "Letter from Birmingham Jail," Alexander insists that such pragmatic paths toward reform too often come at the expense of broader, more principled movements for social change.

Meanwhile, in Texas, the State Senate has approved a bill that gives the Texas Forensic Science Commission broader investigative powers. This commission has carried special importance in recent years following several credible studies claiming that the conviction and 2004 execution of Cameron Todd Willingham for murdering his three children was founded on junk forensic science. Critics of this new legislation fear that it will allow Governor Rick Perry to block public scrutiny into this and other cases. While the bill grants greater powers to the commission, it also gives Perry complete control over appointments and closes public access to open investigations. In light of claims that the Governor has made many attempts to undermine inquiries that might exonerate Willingham, who was executed on Perry's watch, there is strong reason to believe that this silver lining contains a very dark cloud.


Thursday, May 12, 2011

Former San Quentin Warden Turned Death Penalty Abolitionist

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Check out this fascinating and informative Los Angeles Times profile of Jeanne Woodford. She presided over four executions in her capacity as San Quentin's warden, but will now direct Death Penalty Focus, a California-based abolitionist organization.

While the appeal of someone like Woodford joining the anti-death penalty cause is obvious, it also raises some important questions. Last year, several prominent abolitionists signed an open letter to the World Congress Against the Death Penalty, encouraging the organization to mute its vocal support for Pennsylvania death row inmate and activist Mumia Abu-Jamal. Their rational? Supporting Abu Jamal jeopardized their attempts to cultivate relationships with conservative, mostly pro-death penalty organizations like the Fraternal Order of Police. Because Abu-Jamal was convicted of murdering a Philadelphia police officer, a crime which many individuals believe he did not commit, the FOP has been outspoken for three decades in their desire to see Abu-Jamal put to death. By abandoning Abu-Jamal, these abolitionists wager, they stand a better chance of turning these organizations away from endorsing capital punishment on pragmatic grounds like cost, innocence, etc.

Thus, the courting of law enforcement by the anti-death penalty movement may represent a double-edged sword. On one hand, such counterintuitive support from a community with generally high public credibility is certainly appealing. However, at what cost to our movement's principles do we seek such alliances?

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

New Yorker article on death penalty mediator

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In the May 9, 2011 issue of the New Yorker, an article by Jefrrey Toobin discusses the work of Danalynn Recer of the Gulf Region Advocacy Center and the use of mitigation in death-penalty cases.

"The idea (is) to use the mitigation process to tell the life story of the defendant in a way that explain(s) the conduct that brought him into court. The work (is) closer to biography than criminal investigation, and it (has) led to the creation of a new position in the legal world: mitigation specialist." The article tells about Danalynn Recer’s work with Clive Stafford Smith and discusses the use of mitigation in the death-penalty cases of Scott Thibodeaux and Juan Quintero

I'm not sure how long the link will persist, but right now (5/11) you can find the article at:
http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2011/05/09/110509fa_fact_toobin

New book: Razor Wire Women

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"Razor Wire Women: Prisoners, Activists, Scholars, and Artists" is just out from SUNY Press, edited by Ashley Lucas and Jodie Michelle Lawston. In her review of the book, Erica R. Meiners, author of Right to Be Hostile: Schools, Prisons, and the Making of Public Enemies, says: “Jodie Michelle Lawston and Ashley E. Lucas have created a powerful call to action, a reminder that resistance is not futile. With powerful images, testimony, intersectional theorizing, and examples of educational and visual organizing, Razor Wire Women offers essential readings for organizers and scholars—both inside and outside of women’s prisons and detention centers. This is a central read for courses in women’s and gender studies, justice, and sociology, and for all invested in interrupting our nation’s expanding carceral nation.”

(In the interests of full disclosure, I have a chapter in the book about the journalism created by incarcerated women.)

The book can be found on Amazon at:
http://www.amazon.com/Razor-Wire-Women-Prisoners-Criminology/dp/1438435312

The authors have started a web page to promote the book and to encourage the conversations of prisoners, activists, scholars, and artists that began in the book. It is fairly new, but already has some great info and links and can be found at:

http://razorwirewomen.wordpress.com/

Monday, May 9, 2011

Educating Against the PIC

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I want to take a moment to draw your attention to an impressive group of activists, scholars, and educators fighting against the injustices of US's carceral system.

The Chicago PIC Teaching Collective (http://chicagopiccollective.com/) is working to spread knowledge of the Prison Industrial Complex more widely, and creating very helpful resources for educating folks about the crisis of prisons. Sharing information about how the system and its institutions function is a crucial step in exposing prisons as problems and this Collective's tools for outreach and illumination are a valuable part of that project.

The Chicago PIC Teaching Collective has just debuted a zine-- available for (free) download as a pdf on their website-- called "The PIC Is." Designed and illustrated by Billy Dee, the zine is being underwritten in part by the Jane Addams Hull House Museum. Take a look here:
http://chicagopiccollective.com/2011/05/05/introducing-the-pic-is-zine-an-illustrated-exploration/

I encourage you to visit their site, browse their resources, and find a way to use this zine in your prison-related teaching. The work that the Chicago PIC Teaching Collective has undertaken is important and inspiring- please support them in any way you can!

Thursday, April 28, 2011

New Prison Film to Debut in Chicago

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To folks in or around the Chicago area, this new documentary, Exile Nation, looks powerful and fascinating. Check out this short Chicago Tribune article on the film. Also, here's the trailer:

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Sex Workers and Victimization

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I just read this powerful article from the American Prospect. Reflecting both on the recent murders of four prostitutes in Long Island, as well as the notorious "Green River Killer," the author argues that our culture of stigma surrounding sex work renders those citizens who practice it uniquely vulnerable to violence. Not only are sex workers more likely to find themselves in dangerous situations, but law enforcement routinely neglects cases such as the one currently taking place in Long Island. The author advocates a broad reevaluation of how our culture operates at the nexus of sex, violence, and economics.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Media Reform, Media Justice, and the Prison-Industrial Complex

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I just returned from the National Conference for Media Reform (NCMR) that was held in Boston this past weekend. It was a busy three days and I’m tired but inspired.

As I have argued elsewhere, media issues should be considered central for all activists working against the prison- industrial complex. There is a strong connection between the prevalence of media messages of fear and the public’s acceptance of mass incarceration in the U.S., and I believe it will be impossible to effect any real change in the criminal injustice system until and unless we change the media discourse around race, poverty, crime, and violence.

The NCMR brought together over 2500 activists, educators, writers, artists, filmmakers, and citizens inspired by the conference slogan: Change the Media, Change the World. Sponsored by the non-profit organization Free Press (http://www.freepress.net/), the NCMR is held periodically on an irregular schedule and I always find it invigorating and energizing. It is absolutely crucial for dissident movements to establish a sense of community so that individual activists can fight the feelings of isolation and marginalization that often plague those whose opinions and ideas are ignored or ridiculed in the mainstream culture.

The NCMR is by no means a radical utopia (I was particularly displeased by the inclusion of Nancy Pelosi as a featured speaker), but it always offers many inspiring moments, such as the speech by Malkia Cyril (http://conference.freepress.net/presenter/155/malkia-cyril) who emphasized the need for a deep connection between the media reform movement and the fight for media justice. For me, the term media justice invokes the battle against degrading images of people of color and the poor and working classes that continue to infest commercial media while serving to distract us from the real crimes promulgated by America’s corporations and their lackeys in the U.S. government.

“Divide and conquer” is an ancient strategy that the powerful still employ as an effective means of social control, and our media saturated society allows for more propaganda tools than ever before. But the NCMR reminded me that “divide and conquer” can be met by “organize and unite,” and that the fight for social justice has not been entirely lost yet.

To find out more about the National Conference for Media Reform and to watch videos from conference sessions go to: http://conference.freepress.net/home

Sunday, April 10, 2011

New NAACP Study on Incarceration and Education

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In a new report (covered here in The Root), the NAACP argues that, as a nation, we invest more in incarceration than the education of youth. This is particularly harmful to the poor and communities of color. For those already engaged in the battle against the prison-industrial complex, this isn't news; however, it's refreshing to see a high-profile organization like the NAACP publicizing such crucial information.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Chicago Books to Women in Prison

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Here at home in Chicago, I help to run an all-volunteer prison book project (Chicago Books to Women in Prison). We were fortunate enough to be featured on the local ABC news affiliate in Chicago this past week. You can take a look at the video here:
http://abclocal.go.com/wls/video?id=8046241

As a volunteer at CBWP (www.chicagobwp.org), I have come to believe that the small act of answering a person's letter and sending a bundle of books his or her way can have a real--if individualized--impact. I recognize that this perspective is up for debate, and I think there is an important conversation to be had about incremental activism, abolition activism, and interpretations of radicalism in prison-focused movements. (P-CARE has submitted a proposal to discuss this topic at the 2011 National Communication Association Convention- we'll keep you posted!)

I am working on a longer post reflecting on the political aspects of small-scale prison outreach projects, but in the meantime I want to raise the issue of *kindness*. One woman currently being held in Chowchilla, CA sent a recent book request and included a note: "When you don't have anything or anyone out there that cares it is always makes you appreciate when someone that does not even know you reaches out and shows you kindness." Women who write to us at CBWP tell us that the isolation of incarceration can be dehumanizing, and we hope that sending books can help people behind bars feel more connected to others. One reason that I endorse and engage in incremental action is because it can be a way to provide personal connections, however fleeting.

There is something powerful in activism on a human scale.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

A Brief Review of "The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness" by Michelle Alexander

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Michelle Alexander is a civil rights lawyer who has dedicated her career to fighting racial injustice in the U.S. criminal justice system. In The New Jim Crow, she illuminates the racism that infects every stage of that system in an effort to influence public understanding about the War on Drugs and its devastating consequences for the entire nation. Ultimately, Alexander calls for an end to the War on Drugs because “there is no path to liberation for communities of color that includes this ongoing war” (220). She establishes the high stakes of this crises by defining contemporary mass incarceration as a form of racialized social control that creates an undercaste—“a lower caste of individuals who are permanently barred by law and custom from mainstream society” (13).

That definition is strengthened by her argument that mass incarceration is an echo of previous, vile forms of racialized social control in the United States: slavery and Jim Crow (the network of laws and social restrictions that enforced segregation). The book opens with a brief account of Jarvious Cotton, an African American who cannot vote. “Like his father, grandfather, great-grandfather, and great-great grandfather, he has been denied the right to participate in our electoral democracy” (1). Disenfranchisement has taken different forms for different generations: Jarvious’s great-great-grandfather was enslaved, his great-grandfather and grandfather were intimidated and abused by the Ku Klux Klan, and his father was subjected to poll taxes and literacy tests. Jarvious himself was convicted of a felony and is on parole. Despite the different means used to exclude these men from democracy and society, the oppressive ends are the same.

Alexander is sensitive to the risks of making this argument by analogy; she reveals that she was skeptical of the similarities between Jim Crow and mass incarceration even as she worked as the Director of the Racial Justice Project of the American Civil Liberties Union in Northern California (3-4). However, she carefully illuminates the broad influence that the criminal justice has over the lives of impoverished people of color. These populations are subjected to surveillance, supervision, and restrictions on their freedoms in the shape of police procedures, prosecutorial discretion, mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenses, conditions of parole, and laws limiting access to employment, public housing, and welfare for convicted felons. Prison time is only one dimension in which the U.S. criminal justice system exerts control over African Americans.

Alexander presents statistics and narratives to reveal the racial inequality of arrest rates, prosecution, sentencing, and incarceration for drug offenses; she reports, “In at least fifteen states, blacks are admitted to prison on drug charges at a rate from twenty to fifty-seven times greater than that of white men” (96). She warns against a reform strategy that targets legal decisions by insightfully critiquing the precedents established by the United States Supreme Court that make it nearly impossible to stage a legal challenge against systemic racism in the War on Drugs. Past rulings have barred people from alleging claims of racial bias in policing under the Fourth Amendment (Whren v. United States), severely limited grounds for challenging racial bias in prosecution (Armstrong v. United States),or sentencing under the Fourteenth Amendment (McCleskey v. Kemp). Alexander advocates for a holistic reform movement that fights against institutionalized racism and racist public perceptions of criminality. In her words, “all of the needed reforms have less to do with failed policies than a deeply flawed public consensus, one that is indifferent, at best, to the experience of poor people of color” (221).

Alexander spotlights two particularly provocative issues: the tendency for colorblindness to act as a veil over racist practices, and the presumption that a person must be innocent to deserve advocacy.

Alexander showcases the dark side of colorblindness by pointing out that overt symbols of racism like derogatory slurs, nooses , or Ku Klux Klan imagery are “widely condemned by people across the political spectrum; they are understood to be remnants of the past, no longer reflective of the public consensus about race” (211). Slavery and Jim Crow were overtly racist forms of social control, but criminalization allows mass incarceration to masquerade as a set of colorblind practices aimed at securing public safety. Alexander forcefully argues that the criminal justice system, and the War on Drugs that keeps it humming, are not at all colorblind in practice. The many cases of police officers exercising individual discretion to identify drug dealers by making traffic stops and conducting searches without any evidence beyond a targeted person’s race exposes the falsity of racial blindness (64-68, 129). “Throughout the criminal justice system, as well as in our schools and public spaces, young + black + male is equated with reasonable suspicion, justifying the arrest, interrogation, search, and detention of thousands of African Americans every year” (194). Drawing attention to the racial inequality evident in incarceration statistics and mandatory minimum sentencing laws is an important rhetorical move for undermining the myth of a “post-racial” America.

Alexander also warns about the propensity of civil rights advocates to believe that a person’s purity and innocence are prerequisites for advocacy. She notes, “Challenging mass incarceration requires something civil rights advocates have long been reluctant to do: advocacy on behalf of criminals. Even at the height of Jim Crow segregation—when black men were more likely to be lynched than to receive a fair trial in the South—NAACP lawyers were reluctant to advocate on behalf of blacks accused of crimes unless the lawyers were convinced of the men’s innocence” (214). Alexander rightly argues that if this bias in advocacy is allowed to persist, the injustices and oppression that are perpetuated in the name of “fighting crime” cannot be resisted in a meaningful way. “Criminals, it turns out, are the one social group in America we have permission to hate. In ‘colorblind’ America, criminals are the new whipping boys. They are entitled to no respect and little moral concern” (138). Advocates who would fight against mass incarceration must be willing to openly show respect and concern for the folks who have been caged, literally and metaphorically, as criminals.

The New Jim Crow also introduces a number of other topics relevant to concerns about racism and the U.S. criminal justice system, including the privatization and profitability of prisons, and public perceptions of affirmative action and black exceptionalism. The book would be appropriate for inclusion in an undergraduate or graduate course, and the chapters contain sufficient reiteration of major themes that excerpts are intellectually and argumentatively complete. The book is tightly argued and Alexander has a very powerful writing style that is well adapted to a general, public audience.

Please read and share The New Jim Crow: this book can fuel the conversations that we must have about prisons, race, and justice.

-Megan G. Bernard
Rhetoric and Public Culture
Northwestern University

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Going to Prison

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A few hours ago, I returned to campus after bringing my Rhetoric and the Criminal Justice System class to the Indiana Women's Prison. We toured the facility for about three hours. I believe I can say unequivocally that my students were changed. All of them. One way or another I saw some sort of transformation take place, whether it was discovering a new sense of vocation or garnering the courage to open up about their own life's connection to the prison-industrial complex. As much as they thanked me for the experience, I'm grateful to them for moving me so.

There's a lot to talk about and I won't get into all of it. One particularly memorable moment was visiting the facility's mental health wing. The social worker in charge, a woman named Deborah, spoke to us for a good twenty minutes about the ins-and-outs of the facility. It was her discussion that convinced me this tour would be different than the public relations spectacle that was my tour of two Texas facilities several years ago. She unapologetically reflected on the abandonment of state mental health facilities in the 1970s, making damn sure my students knew that our nation's prison system is its mental health system. While I've heard my fair share of stories about rotten prison guards and other staff members, I was reminded that so much of what makes ours such a disastrous prison system is decided by individuals who rarely, if ever, set foot in such facilities. Indeed, today's exploding prisons are the product of the "tough-on-crime" feeding frenzy that predominated electoral politics in the 1980s and 1990s.

Without a doubt, the most powerful portion of these three hours was our discussion with five amazing women who call the facility home. Aside from the pieces of information they volunteered, we don't know why they were there. That said, I don't know all the things my own students have done and I'm not proud of every detail of my past. What we did know was that these were five women involved in one or more of the prison's volunteer programs. Some of them worked with the choir, whereas others participated in the prison's dog training program. They were lively, intelligent women who, obviously, had screwed up. One of them, now 30, had been there since she was 16. I am currently 30. That means this woman, who sent shivers down my spine with her testimony, was entering the system while I was fretting over getting my driver's license. A lot happens between 16 and 30. She has been enclosed in concrete and wire for all that time.

Now, let's be honest; no matter how polite the prison staff was, and they were lovely, we know these women were there for a reason. We were not going to get juicy bits about the ins-and-outs of the IWP (though they did have some choice words about the food). These women were exemplary inmates and we even overheard one staff member telling another than the women they chose would be "perfect" in this capacity. That said, I was astonished by the forceful critiques they leveraged against our unforgiving carceral society. They articulated, in ways that put my finest teaching and writing moments to shame, the utter inadequacy of the social safety net once someone leaves prison. They reflected on the punishing impact of incarceration on children, spouses, and parents. They were also sure to note that none of them are wealthy, for it is not the well-to-do citizen that does a full stretch behind bars.

Of all the things they had to say, I believe two will stick with me the most. Because this is a rhetoric class, we made sure to ask them their thoughts on popular and political representations of the prison system. While we've all encountered the cynical fellow citizen who rolls their eyes whenever you mention the words "television" and "prison cell" in the same sentence, I am so grateful these women have an opportunity to see how their world gets represented to the rest of us. They reflected on how fascinated the spectacle-consuming public is with the myriad gross exaggerations of a life that is, on most days, agonizingly banal. One woman also suggested that the unforgiving attitude many citizens harbor toward the incarcerated is a displacement of their own individual and societal guilt. Eat your heart out, Kenneth Burke.

They also spent a great deal of time reflecting positively on the programs in which they participate (two of the canines they were training for disability assistance were on hand). They associated the presence of such programs with the prison's low incidence rate relative to other Indiana facilities. As one woman put it, you don't do anything stupid because there is "something to be lost." Viewed one way, this may be a testament to the disciplining function of such programs. Indeed, I can name a wide range of prison scholars who would dismiss the choir or dog training as Foucauldian traps designed to discipline the incarcerated subject. Others would make a forceful argument for why more prisons should have such programs and, therefore, reduce both incidence and recidivism rates across the whole system. I believe there are kernels of truth in both these positions. Indeed, it is the gray area in the prison-industrial complex that makes it so damn compelling and frustrating. But there is another dimension to this simple statement on "something to be lost" that strikes to the very core of a nation that incarcerates one out of every hundred of its adult citizens. Who inhabits our prisons? Rarely are they people who feel they have something to lose. They come from poverty, racism, sexual abuse, addiction, and other vestiges of desperation that make one tragic choice seem perfectly rational amid an array of shitty options. One book I cannot get off my mind as of late is Erica Meiners's powerful Right to be Hostile. In it, she documents the deep structural connection between what passes for public education in many sectors of the country and the disproportionate level of incarceration among those very communities least academically served. Indeed, what remains to be lost and how on earth, in these times of austerity and corporate crime, can we give the most desperate among us the sense that they have something to lose?

In his book Fugitive Thought, Michael Hames-Garcia argues that "political prisoners" are "valuable and concrete theorists of justice." Indeed, I owe a wide range of my thinking on prisons, race, empire, etc. on the writings of Mumia Abu-Jamal, George Jackson, Angela Davis, and others. These brave, politically lucid souls have rightfully inspired movements. However, my students and I did not meet with revolutionaries today. These were not women consciously invested in dismantling the prison-industrial complex. I wonder if they could even accept a concept like prison abolition. Nonetheless, we witnessed brilliance while in their presence. Through their concrete, if unexceptional experiences, they theorized both justice and injustice. We can all learn a lot from them.