Wednesday, January 26, 2011

PCARE's work on!

0 comments's Criminal Justice blog, linked on our blogroll, is an excellent resource for news and commentary on the prison system. Recently, they covered the work of PCARE member Stephen Hartnett (whose volume of poems by his imprisoned students is also linked to the right).

Virgina Senator's Call for Sex Offender Castration

Most prison scholars and activists are familiar with Foucault's seminal work, Discipline & Punish: The Birth of the Prison.

In it, Foucault explains that in the past, punishment was very much focused on disciplining the body. The public would 'enjoy the show' as lawbreakers were tortured & dragged through the streets for all see. A "public spectacle" he called it (1977, p. 7). However, Foucault went on to argue that this disciplining of the body decreased over time and incarceration became about incarcerating the souls of the individuals:
The old partners of the spectacle of punishment, the body and the blood, gave way. A new character came on the scene, masked. It was the end of a certain kind of tragedy; comedy began, with shadow play, faceless voices, impalpable entities. The apparatus of punitive justice must now bite into this bodiless reality. (p. 16-17)
In light of these writings more than 30 years ago... I find it interesting that some are now reigniting the debate on the appropriateness (and COST effectiveness) of castration for male sex offenders. Foucault seemed to suggest that the era of physical humiliation and punishment had come to and end long before 1977. However, here we are today in 2011 reading about a similar story of a proposal to "discipline the body" in a physically permanent way.

The Washing Post cite Hanger as saying:
"I don't think it's radical at all," said Hanger, R-Augusta. "It's just something that's not typically the thing you want to bring up in polite conversation, but again the whole subject area is not for polite conversation."
You can find the full story in this article in the Washing Post.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Jared Lee Loughner, the Death Penalty, and Us

The Christian Science Monitor today ran an excellent article exploring the possible impacts the Tucson shootings will have on public discourse in the United States. The piece prominently features author David Schmid, whose Natural Born Celebrities: Serial Killers in American Culture is required reading for anyone interested in what our fascination with the macabre says about us.

One of the central questions the article poses is how Loughner's trial will impact public discourse surrounding the death penalty. The past decade has not been kind to capital punishment, as questions of innocence, cost, and deterrence increasingly prompt states to reconsider the sanction's efficacy (my native state, Illinois, is one gubernatorial signature away from outright abolition). Will Loughner, much like Timothy McVeigh, catalyze a renewal of public support for capital punishment (which has been dropping over the years)? Or will Loughner's trial prompt us to see him as "a parable of despair and rootlessness that gnaw at the edges of the American experiment"?

Wherever this discussion goes, it will be a lengthy and painful one. History is littered with instances of sensationalism from media and "tough-on-crime" pandering from politicians, but might there be another way to make sense of Mr. Loughner?

I'm reminded of powerful words from one of my favorite death penalty scholars, Austin Sarat. He writes, "To oppose [capital punishment] is to carry the burden of explaining why the state should not kill people like Timothy McVeigh, of producing a new theory of responsibility and of responsible punishment, and of humanizing inhuman deeds."

In other words, we have our work cut out for us.

Monday, January 24, 2011

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Prison Activism & The Arts

Dear PCARE Friends:

At the 2010 National Communication Association convention in San Francisco, some of us hosted an evening of speeches, plays, poems, videos, and new media creations wherein we thought about ways of using the arts to help build an abolition community. Our colleague, Dr. Damien Pfister, filmed two of the presentations, which are accessible below:

1. Each One Reach One: This clip shows Bay Area actors performing a short play written by an incarcerated youth who worked with the Each One Reach One theater ensemble to think about questions of self-worth, caring for others, and finding happiness:

2. The Beat Within: This clip shows a Bay Area activist reading works from The Beath Within, a publication of poems, testimonials, and other works by both imprisoned and free authors:


The return of the debtor's prison?


We should absolutely hold fathers responsible for child support and care; however, the application of lengthy prison sentences for people financially unable to provide child support has de facto reincarnated the historic debtor's prison. Prison is not the solution to this issue. In this case, well-placed social disapproval for "dead-beat dads" (hiding assets and concealing income to avoid their financial obligations to their children) has masked fundamental class disparities in enforcement and legal representation between people of means and those living poverty. And, because those living in poverty lack proper legal representation and the available means to readily pay support, in certain cases the application of these laws criminalize poverty itself. In the US, federal debtor's prisons were abolished in 1833 (though it is still legal in six states in a limited capacity). Incarcerating solely for the failure to pay debt remains unconstitional. Furthermore, prison merely contributes to the cycle of poverty rather than providing justice or restitution for those in need of child support.

North Carolina's Racial Justice Act

From the Raleigh News & Observer:

"Near the top of the to-do list for many GOP members of North Carolina's newly Republican-controlled legislature will be repeal of the state's Racial Justice Act, approved during the 2009 session in a series of party-line votes.

"The law allows judges to consider whether race played a role in the decision to seek or impose the death penalty, and it provides the authority to commute a death sentence to life in prison if evidence of racial bias is found."

Here is the article in its entirety.

For statistics on race and capital punishment, check out the Death Penalty Information Center. For some helpful analysis, visit Amnesty International.

Thinking About Prisons in a Global Perspective

Dear Colleagues:

For those of you tracking the global reach of the prison-industrial complex, check out two recent reports from Human Rights Watch (

1. "Where Darkness Knows No Limits": Incarceration, Ill-Treatment, and Forced Labor as Drug Rehabilitation in China; and

2. "An Alleyway in Hell": China's Abusive "Black Jails."

I am warry of the habitual China-bashing that comes from the risk-profiteers in D.C., but these reports illustrate how many of the issues we PCARE folks tackle here in the U.S. are just as relevant abroad.

Peace to all, SJH.

HRW Blasts American Prisons

A new report from Human Rights Watch criticizes the United States for startling racial disparities in its prison system, as well as continued civil liberties violations in the "War on Terror."

For news coverage on the report, check out this Agence France Presse article. For the full report, follow this link.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Juvenile Justice in California

The New York Times covers the ongoing debate surrounding California's imploding juvenile system.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

From my prison notebook...

I volunteer at a maximum security prison, visiting weekly to lead a class in creative writing, public speaking and discussion with men serving long sentences. Often, these discussions and personal observations lead me not to clear positions on policy, but rather to reflections and puzzlements. For example, yesterday the guys in my class talked about how disenfranchised they felt by the legal system. One man described how he had found himself sitting in the courtroom at his own trial, with the prosecutor, public defender and judge all talking about him, and he couldn't understand any of the words except his own name. Research has firmly established the challenges to fairness in the current system - reactionary mandatory minimums, sentencing disparities, corrupt prosecutors, inept public defenders, cynical plea bargains, educational disadvantage, etc., - so the men's stories are no surprise. But hearing their descriptions of encounters with the system, I am overcome by frustration and sadness. As I read a few years ago in a New York Times editorial, "In our legal system, justice costs money, which means lots of poor people have to get along without it."

Families of the Accused Reach Out

Much public discourse on violent crime, especially involving the death penalty, focuses on the needs and experiences of victims' families. To be sure, these are people who need a wide range of support from their community and government officials.

But what about the families of the accused?

This excellent New York Times article takes up this important question in light of the Tucson shootings.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Lethal Injection Controversies Continue


“The sole U.S. maker of a key execution drug has decided to permanently halt production of the drug, which could lead many states to face delay in carrying out the death penalty.”

More on this from the Wall Street Journal.

For more background on the national shortage of this lethal injection drug, check out this New York Times article.

Felony Disenfranchisement

Virtually all states place major limits on the voting rights of convicted felons. In many cases, they cannot even vote after they have completed their sentence. Here is the story of a Texas man who is ineligible to run for elected office because of a fifteen year-old conviction for passing a forged check.

Private Prisons: Domestic and Global

America's private prison industry has experienced unpredecented growth over the past decade. Every year since 2003, America's largest prison firm, the Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) has reported record profits. Growth in the private prison industry has accelerated due to a number of political and economic forces. "Tough of crime" rhetoric, the push for austere "no frills" prisons, and economic trends toward privatization of public expenditures and services has created a welcoming environment for a private prison industry. At the same time, crackdowns on illegal immigration have created a niche market for private immigration detention facilities. In 2007 CCA paid close to $3.25 million in lobbying focused on immigration and national security. In 2008 Congress allocated 2.3 billion to the Corrections Corporation of American to expand immigration detention facilities. (Also see

Prison corporations such as CCA and Wackenhunt Correction Corporation have also begun to seek opportunities abroad. Prison industries have directly contributed the expansion of incarceration in developing nations by offering modernized industrial prisons as symbols of neoliberal economic development in the developing world. In making their case for global expansion, CCA and WCC have been some of the most fervent critics of the abuse and inefficiency in foreign prisons. For example, Julie Sudbury's research spotlights the growing connection between US prison firms and the emergence of global mass incarceration. She explains that by situating their arguments in neoliberal capitalism, the prison industry thrives by isolating the failures of state-run programs and offering for-profit alternatives, “a panacea that will solve the problems of overcrowding, corruption, and horrendous conditions in overstretched, under-resources penal systems” (p. 25). Private prisons, however, have exacerbated conditions and claims of efficacy are indicted by documented cases of staff shortages, inadequate health care, rampant violence, and sexual abuse (Nathan, 2000). Nonetheless, privatized prisons are now under construction or being considered in Argentina, Peru, Mexico, Canada, Venezuela, South Africa, New Zealand, Australia, and the Netherlands Antilles. This is only a brief snap-shot of how globalization has influenced the imperatives of US prison corporations.

Prison scholars and activists should also begin to turn their attention to how private prison industries have developed strategies to export the American model of mass incarceration abroad. Prisons should represent the failures of social policy, not its advancement or modernization. Prison industries have taken advantage of disparate strands of public discourse to make a convincing and dangerous argument; one that requires unmasking.

Nathan, S. (2000). The prison industry goes global. Yes! A Journal of Positive Futures, Fall, 34-35.
Sudbury, J. (2005). Introduction: Feminist critiques, transnational landscapes, abolitionist
visions. In J. Sudbury (ed.), Global lockdown: Race, gender, and the prison-industrial complex. New York: Routledge.
Sudbury, J. (2004). A world without prisons: Resisting militarism, globalized punishment, and
empire. Social Justice, 31, 9-30.

How to Subscribe to the PCARE Email List


If you want to stay adrift of discussions regarding the American prisons system, particularly as its relevant to the study of human communication, please subscribe to the low-volume PCARE listserv. Here are the instructions:

Prison-Communication Action Research and Education (P-CARE) listserv subscription information:

This listserv is developed by and for communication scholars, teachers and activists to share information about and discuss prison-related research, teaching, and activism. Anyone is welcome to subscribe and a subscription is necessary to post to the list. Postings are not edited. Therefore, we ask that postings adhere to these guidelines: 1) relate to prison issues, particularly those dealing with research, teaching, and activism; 2) disagreements, debate, and dialogue are encouraged and should be conducted respectfully; 3) spams are not welcome.

New subscribers can join by sending mail to

No subject or message text is required. The system picks up the name and address from the e-mail headers.

Current subscribers can remove themselves from the list by sending mail to:

Again, no subject or message text is required.

Thanks to Jennifer K. Wood of Penn State-New Kensington for maintaining the list!

Death Row Hunger Strike Ends w/ Concessions from State

A prisoner hunger strike that began on January 3 ended yesterday after prison administrators conceded to most of the inmates' demands. This story is particularly noteworthy, because the three Ohio death row inmates involved in the strike were prominent figures in the infamous Lucasville Prison uprising of 1993.

For more, check out:

News of the hunger strike's resolution.

A recent Democracy Now! story on the hunger strike, with context on the Lucasville uprising.

Information on Staughton Lynd's book on Lucasville.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

News on the State Budget Front

Some troubling developments illustrating how state budget priorities impact those most directly affected by mass incarceration.

First, from my old home state of Texas:

"Funding for the indigent defense program was slashed from the more than $29 million allotted statewide this year to just more than $783,000 for the whole state during each 2012 and 2013, according to the bill. The fund helps provide legal representation to suspects who can't afford their own defender." (Full article:

Meanwhile, in California:

"Gov. Jerry Brown's bid to abolish the state youth prison system could save hundreds of millions of dollars and quicken the pace of reform at county facilities. But the changes could remove important barriers that keep some juvenile offenders out of adult prisons." (Full article:

Indeed, the prison system is linked to a wide range of local, state, and federal policy matters; all of which require committed communication activism.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011



In 2002, a group of communication scholars gathered at the annual meeting of the National Communication Association in New Orleans, LA. What they had in common was a deep disgust with alarming national incarceration rates, as well as the growing relationship between private corporations and state prison systems. Many had spent years teaching inside penitentiaries. Others brought experience at the grassroots level, organizing efforts to change local, state, and national penal policies. All were communication scholars anxious to use their work as academics to combat the nation's rapidly expanding prison system. They adopted the acronym "PCARE" to represent the composition of their talents and experiences: Prison Communication, Activism, Research, and Education.

Since 2002, the American prison population has continued to grow. In fact, the United States incarcerates a larger percentage of its adult population than any nation in the world. As a result, PCARE continues its efforts to encourage communication activism by our friends and colleagues. Mass incarceration is one of the great crises of our time and is inextricably bound to the troubling discourses of crime and punishment that permeate our schools, media, and communities. Additionally, our collective experience tells us that when we empower the incarcerated to communicate, their lives are transformed. Because of this, we believe communication scholars and practitioners have an important role to play in the struggle to fight our nation's race to incarcerate and work toward alternative responses to crime.

This blog is one part of our work. We have already published an article in the NCA journal Communication and Critical/Cultural Studies discussing the intersection between communication and incarceration. We also routinely intervene at academic and political conferences to promote the critical engagement of the American prison system. We plan to use this site to keep our colleagues and allies updated on both our collective work and important developments in the American penal system.

Numerous scholars have noted that mass incarceration is a relatively new phenomenon. Accordingly, it is by no means natural or permanent. Only by denaturalizing the prison's role in American politics and culture can we begin the difficult but profoundly important work of dismantling this prison-industrial complex.